New York City is home to hundreds of ethnic and immigrant groups from around the world, including Africans. But until recently, the African diaspora lacked a center dedicated to their needs, especially regarding HIV/AIDS prevention, counseling and treatment.
Now, the Harlem-based African Services Committee offers testing and referral services for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and various sexually transmitted diseases, along with other immigrant support services specifically geared to New York’s African community.
More than 12,000 clients took advantage of the non-profit organization’s free or low cost services last year.
The group was founded by Ethiopian refugee Asfaha Hadera in 1981, when there were no services geared to New York’s African diaspora.
“It was a response to their need,” he said. “As a result, this has become the place where they come and share their experiences.”
ASC now offers HIV outreach, education and testing. The program began during the 1980s in response to the AIDS epidemic.
Often still a taboo
HIV/AIDS remains a taboo topic in many parts of Africa, where contracting the virus is often considered shameful. That attitude persists among many African immigrants in New York, said Mulusew Bekele, ASC’s programs operations director.
“Until they get comfortable with the services we have, they tend to in a sense self-stigmatize until I sit down and explain to them that we are here to serve, and that the services are confidential,” he said.
Bekele said that helping immigrants who are fearful or sick can be often be taxing. “But the most gratifying part is seeing someone come in, thin as a rail and see them over time flourish, gain weight, be confident and see them smile,” he said.
Help for Harlem, then the homeland
In 2003, Asfaha Hadera secured a small grant to take African Services Committee to Ethiopia. He opened a clinic in the capital’s main open-air market. The facility is staffed by locals but run according to U.S. best practices, including transparency, accountability, and quality service.
“All services [are] in one [place] so that the poor don’t have to hustle from one corner to another. Reproductive health is there. Family planning is there. Nutrition is there. Counseling and testing is there, and also treatment,” he said.
ASC Program Director in Ethiopia Hana Woldegabriel said her group reaches out directly to clients, most of whom are poor.
“Most them live on the street and most of them are HIV positive… Also, they are kids, HIV positive kids, who have no one. They don’t have a father to support them,” she said.
‘Save a life and save a world’
Today, ASC runs fully equipped clinics in five regions of Ethiopia. Hadera said the clinics are not only a blessing for residents of rural areas where health care is sparse, but also for himself and ASC’s growing staff.
“I thought that one person might not make a difference, but the fact that, if you [are] born to it, if you [are] dedicated, if you are focused, if you are responsible, if you manage resources effectively, it comes [down] to the Jewish principle that, ‘if you save one life, you are saving the world’” (source).