Happily Ever After…After HIV
Some of Blessing Okoro’s* earliest memories are seeing her mother, Ngozi,* in tremendous pain, vomiting and losing weight quickly.
Blessing was 12 years old, straddling childhood and adolescence in her village in Nigeria.
“She was really sick,” Blessing says of her mother. “I thought she was going to die.”
And then everyone left. People were afraid that merely looking at Blessing’s mom would make them sick as well.
“Even my dad, they all left us, just like that,” says Blessing. “I didn’t have any idea of what was going on. Nobody wanted us.”
But then the Okoro family found some people who wouldn’t leave—Catholic Relief Services and our local Church partners.
“That was the moment I knew everything was going to change,” she says.
That was in 2004. As Blessing speaks today, it’s the eve of her wedding. She feels the accumulation of the experiences of those years—good and bad.
“I went to university. It was tough, but I knew where I was coming from, so I told myself I could do it, and I did it.
“What started back then made me stronger today, and made me face any challenge,” says Blessing.
Blessing’s mother was sick because of HIV. At the time, Nigeria’s HIV prevalence rate was 5 percent, and the disease was viewed as a death sentence.
“The way I was looking, people would say today or tomorrow I would die, so there was no hope. My children dropped out of school. There was no money anywhere,” her mother says.
Blessing was tormented by her mother’s pain. She was forced to put away childish things and become an adult.
“I had to take care of my mom and my kid sister,” she says. “We went to bed hungry—several times.”
Kemi Ezeanyim, a program manager at the Catholic Church’s Department of Health Service Providers, understands, “The burden of HIV and AIDS was so much on the children back then. They were burdened by ignorance, burdened by poverty.
“Some of them became the breadwinners, dropping out of school and doing manual labor to provide for their parents. Some of them went into prostitution. You saw a lot of human trafficking cases due to the HIV and AIDS epidemic,” she says.
Kemi says she will never forget the first day Ngozi came into her office.
“She was skeletal. She was really bad. We didn’t know if she would survive,” Kemi says.
But Ngozi did.
“I told myself I’m not going to die. That HIV isn’t going to kill me. I’m a strong woman,” she says.
That strength helped save her life.
“She was taken to the hospital, because we can’t give up on someone who would not give up,” Kemi says. “And after a few months, she really responded to medicine.”
The price of antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV were beginning to dramatically decline and, with treatment, AIDS went from a death sentence to a chronic, but treatable disease.
And the Okoros received more than medicine.
“The Church gave us all the support we could ever need: Physically, emotionally, mentally—everything,” says Blessing. “They gave us everything.”
Since HIV requires lifelong treatment and care, Ngozi needed a way to earn an income to provide for her family as she lived with the virus.
CRS and our local partners launched a project called SUN, or Scaling-up Nigeria’s Response to HIV and AIDS. It was funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. One of the goals was to help people like Ngozi, so they could not only improve their health, but also find a way out of poverty.
“They came and asked, ‘How can we empower you?’ And I said, ‘I want a freezer.’ They bought one for me,” Ngozi says.
That appliance allowed her to open a shop, selling cold drinks. It prospered.
“Today I have 26 freezers and three shops,” she says.
As the years went on, Ngozi and her daughters saw their lives improving—better health, income, education. They found new friends and some old ones came back, including Blessing’s father.
“I had to let go and forgive him, and we became a family again,” she says.
Blessing, now 26, finished university, and works at a private bank. Her younger sister is finishing university next year. And Ngozi has become an advocate and caregiver for people with HIV and AIDS in her community.
And now Blessing is about to get married.
“I’m on top of the world,” Ngozi says. “I’m the happiest person on earth. She made me proud.”
Blessing says if it weren’t for CRS and our partners, her life could be a lot different today.
“I just wonder what would have happened to us,” she says.
“It was God that had a plan for us,” Blessing says. “I’m forever grateful.”
*Name changed to protect identity.
Turning Obstacles Into Opportunity
By Robyn Fieser
Grit—the drive to reach a goal even when life gets hard—is a value Americans live by. It’s the stuff of the American Dream, which tells us we can do anything with hard work and determination.
Some psychologists believe grit is a key trait for success. There’s no shortage of evidence connecting the two. Oprah Winfrey left a childhood of sexual abuse and poverty behind to lead a $2.9-billion media empire. J.K. Rowling went through divorce, depression and 12 rejections before publishing her first Harry Potter book.
I have never seen as much grit as I have in the women we work with in Central America. Women like Maria Ramirez,* who fought daily to envision a future through a kaleidoscope of gang violence, domestic abuse and poverty.
At 22, Maria experienced incomprehensible suffering. Her mother migrated to North Dakota when she was 8 years old, leaving her in Guatemala to care for her little sister.
They lived with their grandmother, who treated Maria like a servant. Daily life could be treacherous. To get to school, Maria walked through an empty lot that divided gang-controlled territories and served as their battleground. Twice she was caught in gunfire.
She was spared the forced recruitment of girls into gang activities that fuels migration. But her best friend was killed by gang members.
She was pregnant by 17. She dropped out of school and got married. It wasn’t long before her husband started beating her.
Then Maria found YouthBuild, a CRS program that provides education, employment and leadership to youth. Showing up every day for 6 months was no easy feat for Maria. Daycare was a challenge. She was always short of money. And her husband became increasingly belligerent about her spending time away from home.
But Maria finished the program.
As did Katherine Ordonez Alejandro, 19, despite resistance from her father—he believed the program was a waste of time and forbade her from participating.
Katherine worked out an alternate schedule with her instructors that allowed her to arrive home before her father. Eventually, he found out and kicked her out of the house.
When I talk to female YouthBuild graduates, I’m struck by how many layers of marginalization they face. Jobs are scarce—especially for kids from low-income neighborhoods—and poverty is rampant. Gangs can make simple things like getting to work dangerous. It’s no wonder so many young people believe their lives mean nothing.
Katherine and Maria woke up at the crack of dawn every day to participate in YouthBuild with the hope of landing a job and getting ahead in life.
To succeed, they fought their close family memebrs, all of whom echoed the voice in their heads telling them they would never amount anything. That’s grit.
But grit is not enough. In YouthBuild, both girls found caring adults and a safe place where they could build resilience, get support, think critically and find their voice.
That’s what happens at YouthBuild. While providing a pathway to a livelihood, it creates an environment for personal transformation and growth.
It was the support and encouragement they received at YouthBuild that helped them build the skills they needed to get a job. It gave them the confidence to change their lives and envision a different future.
Maria has since left her husband and is studying English. Katherine works at a sporting goods store. She scraped enough money together to buy a small piece of land and plans to build a house.
As we celebrate CRS’ 75th anniversary, I’m proud to be a part of a program that helps young women discover their grit and turn obstacles into opportunity.
Robyn Fieser is the regional marketing manager for CRS in Latin America and the Caribbean.