'The hardest thing is turning deaf children away because we don't have enough funds'
An Irish priest who helps some of Ethiopia's most vulnerable children says they are often seen as a curse.
Vincentian priest Fr Stephen Monaghan, from Co Dublin, told the Irish Independent that deaf children in Ethiopia are treated as "cursed" and are shunned by society.
Fr Stephen, who previously served as a chaplain at St Patrick's College and worked with the deaf community in Ireland for years, started a school for the deaf in the rural village of Ambo.
"We started with a kindergarten school in Ambo and soon I saw a need for a school for deaf children," Fr Stephen said. "There was one young boy named Wandamagen who was deaf and he had no opportunity for an education in the area.
"Deaf students have many problems when it comes to education. Parents associate being deaf as a negative thing. They have the attitude sometimes that a deaf child is a cursed child and they hide the child away. This means that the child isn't included in society and doesn't get an education."
Along with the parish priest in the area, Fr Asfaw Felek, Fr Stephen is responsible for the running of the deaf school, which now has 62 students.
"Most of the children who came to the deaf school came without any real means of communication," he said. "Their parents use informal signs to communicate and some students had stones thrown at them as a means of communication."
Abebu (14) is one of the many children who have excelled at the Irish-supported school in Ambo.
Through the help of a translator, the 14-year-old tells the Irish Independent how the deaf school has changed her life.
"I was in a government school before coming to this school and I failed repeatedly," Abebu said. "I was learning with children who could hear and my teacher was always angry with me because I didn't understand.
"I was punished by the teacher if I didn't understand. I was often slapped and beaten when my teacher asked me questions and I didn't respond. I was always very stressed and tired.
"At first, the other children were nice to me because they had pity for me. But then it made them angry that I wasn't understanding.
"I am very happy here. The teachers are very kind and I have friends like me. I am away from my family but I want the opportunity to learn."
Leensa (9) came to the Ambo school recently with little communication and just three weeks later she had already developed sign language.
"She's one of our brightest students now," said Fr Stephen. "There is such a big difference in children when they learn to communicate.
"She is a very happy child here now and has friends who can help her along with the sign language outside of the classroom."
A woman from Dublin is also changing the lives of rural children in Ambo.
Margaret Anne O'Brien, who is a member of the Travelling community in Labre Park, Ballyfermot, has raised more than €80,000 for charity over the past decade.
Her most notable project is the setting-up of the kindergarten school in Ambo.
The school, which is next to the deaf school, was established with Irish donations and with a grant from Irish Aid.
Margaret Anne told the Irish Independent that she began fundraising to build a school in Ambo after she visited the area in 2015 and was shocked by the poverty.
"People always ask me why I'm fundraising for Africa when we have so many problems here at home," she said. "I do it for a lot of Irish charities here too. There is enough money to go around."
The kindergarten school began with a couple of hundred students learning under a tree and today has 136 students.
It is now run by the Lazarist community in Ethiopia and is fully dependent on funding from Ireland.
Margaret Anne also raised money to sponsor the teachers to attend college and gain a qualification in Montessori teaching.
"It broke my heart seeing how poor the area was," she said. "People have to go over and see it first-hand to believe how poor the children are. I picked Ambo because that's where the children are the poorest."
The students come from the poorest areas of Ambo and three of the kindergarteners even live in prison with their mothers and get a guard escort to school.
From 8am until 3pm every day, the children are happy, energetic and fun-loving kids, excelling at their schoolwork and running carefree through the large schoolyard.
The children's attendance at the school also offers the parents the opportunity to access employment - the majority of them work as daily labourers, earning no more than €2 a day.
Thanks to the work of the Irish volunteers who fundraise and run both schools, these rural children, who often come to school hungry, have the chance to access education and escape a future of poverty that is so hard to avoid.
Margaret Anne was due to visit the school earlier this year but was unable to travel due to an injury.
"I can't wait to go over and see the progress," she said. "I've been told that the kids are very happy and are doing very well.
"I do a lot for my own country too. For the past 14 years, I've been fundraising for the homeless, for St James's Hospital, and for Barnardos. It's important to me to reach out to the poorest of poor in Africa too."
While both schools are thriving under Irish leadership, they still need vital funding.
The deaf school costs €33,000 annually to run and often fundraising can be a challenge for the school.
The school now hopes to build extensions year-on-year but needs vital funding in order for this to happen.
"There are loads of children from the rural districts who would love to join the deaf school but we don't have the funding," Fr Stephen told the Irish Independent.
"Some of the children walk hours to get to and from the school, so we're hoping to fundraise and build a boarding school for 80 children.
"Our population has already doubled since last year and we're struggling to cope financially with the number of children who want to join."
People from across Ireland have donated time, resources and skills to ensure the success of the schools.
Irish volunteer Margaret Farrell, a retired teacher who taught deaf children at St Mary's school in Dublin, travelled to Ethiopia to lend her expertise.
Margaret volunteered at the school for three weeks, instructing the other teachers, three of whom are deaf, in how to use a new Montessori-style maths programme called Numicon, which was developed at Oxford University. Margaret is also teaching the students how to make crafts through a weaving programme.
Fr Stephen said that the best thing about his job is watching how quickly the rural children are progressing.
"It's amazing watching the difference that the school is making to the children's lives," he said. "They start to develop a positive sense of identity and have hopes for the future. We are breaking stigmas at the school every day.
"The hardest thing, though, is turning away new students because we don't have enough funding. We don't have a boarding facility to accommodate them.
"This, however, will hopefully be our next big undertaking. Now I know the need exists, I feel a very strong sense of obligation to respond."
You can donate to the schools at www.vlm.ie.
This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund