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Bringing Eyecare to Ethiopia Started with a Family Trip

eyecare Feb. 2023 Mobile Eyecare Clinic in Tedda

Our family of six made aliyah from St. Louis, MO in 2004, settling in Raanana.

In the spring of 2014, when our four kids were ages 11-16 my husband and I were planning our summer vacation. Suddenly, our 12-year-old son said he wanted to do a "volunteer" trip instead of a typical vacation, and his siblings jumped on the idea too. We took their request to heart and after much searching, found out that we could volunteer in the Jewish community of Gondar, Ethiopia where thousands of Jews still awaited aliyah. So in mid-August that year we boarded an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Gondar via Addis Ababa, having no idea what to expect, but loaded with suitcases full of crafts, games, jump ropes, and more for kids in the Gondar Jewish summer camp.

Upon arrival we dropped our bags at the "hotel" and went off to the Jewish compound, which is like a community center. We played games, told stories, and sang Hebrew songs with the kids. My husband Morris hadn't told anyone there that he was an ophthalmologist, but our Ethiopian-Israeli guide knew, and on our last day brought a child with an eye problem over to him to be checked. Morris examined the child with a penlight, and then we headed back to our hotel for lunch. When we returned for the mincha service that afternoon, hundreds of people filled the bench seats of the compound. We thought it seemed like a big crowd for mincha, until our guide told us they were there because they heard there was a doctor and wanted to have their eyes checked! It turned out most of them had never seen a doctor. With only a penlight, Morris examined each person until late into the night. We unfortunately had no treatment to offer them, but made a list of the medications they needed, thinking that perhaps we could send them from Israel once we returned home.

We arrived back in Israel after that one-week trip and had trouble readjusting to our normal lives. We had been so deeply impacted by our experience and the level of extreme poverty that we saw first-hand. We could not just slip back into our usual routines – we felt changed, and we felt we had to DO something. We had seen entire extended families living in one-room mud huts, with no toilets or running water in their homes, no kitchens, visibly malnourished kids, and masses of people with no access to medical care. We told everyone we knew about our experience, we gave a talk at our synagogue, but still we knew we had to do MORE.

So, the following summer we decided to go back. This time we would bring eye medications and eyeglasses and would conduct proper eye exams. We set off again for Gondar with suitcases full of medical supplies. We set up our first mobile eyecare clinic in the Jewish compound – with each kid manning a station – eyeglasses, medications, and so on. Morris, assisted by a translator, examined each person and then referred them to me or one of our kids for eyedrops or glasses. And just like that we examined and treated hundreds of people over those five days! It was an incredible success.

After that we started to travel to Gondar several times a year to provide eyecare in this way. All on our own and at our expense, just our family.

At some point Morris discovered there was a hospital across the street from our hotel and offered his services to teach surgery and operate there. He secured an Ethiopian medical license. Then after he formed relationships with the eye department in Gondar, we started bringing Ethiopian ophthalmologists to his hospital, Shamir Medical Center, in Israel for advanced training.

Back in Ethiopia other neighboring villages to Gondar heard about our mobile eyecare clinics and asked if we could come out to them too. We believe strongly in the Jewish value of Tikun Olam and we were happy to oblige. We started setting up our mobile eyecare clinics in the villages of Azzezo, Kola Diba, Maksignet, and more.

We discovered that many people in Ethiopia are blind from untreated cataracts. So we joined efforts with a US NGO and started running cataract campaigns, where we restore eyesight to hundreds of people over the course of one week.

The first few years after that initial trip, each time we went back it was with some combination of our children. Then one day, a friend of one of our son's asked if she could join us too – and she became our first non-family volunteer.

In 2020 I closed the US company I had founded and run for 20+ years, and after a brief break I decided to take all of this work that Morris and our family had done over 7 years , and create an official Israeli non-profit organization, Operation Ethiopia to expand and grow our impact.

July 2023 Mobile Eyecare Clinic in Azzezo
July 2023 Mobile Eyecare Clinic in Azzezo, our daughter Dalia. Photo credit: Abel Gashaw

We now run four medical missions per year. We have organized volunteer trips, a physician training program, and run surgical campaigns on the ground in Ethiopia. We provide direct grassroots eyecare to people who otherwise have none.

We work together with local Ethiopians in all capacities that we can – to build partnerships, friendships, and to support the local economy. Our support staff of translators, photography, security, logistics, and transport are all hired locally.

We are a proudly Israeli and Jewish NGO and when we show up in rural villages to set up mobile eyecare clinics people happily call out "Israel is here!" We have gotten much press in Ethiopia both in TV and print for helping build humanitarian bridges between Ethiopia and Israel.

To date we have treated over 12,000 patients in our mobile eyecare clinics, restored eyesight to over 2,000 people, trained 19 Ethiopian ophthalmologists and distributed thousands of units of eyeglasses and eye medications, and we are just getting going.

All of this started from the suggestion of a 12-year-old child, and would never have come to be otherwise. We have learned that you never know what one step can lead to, and the best ideas don't always come from those with the most life experience. 

Dr. Morris selfie with the kids

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Tuesday, 18 June 2024

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