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HIV Success Stories on Capitol Hill

By Patrick Carney

Norah Matyama's tenth birthday was a memorable one. It was the day she learned she is infected with HIV.

After hearing the news, her fearful first question betrayed her innocence—did her diagnosis mean she couldn't have birthday cake?

Norah didn't want her illness to become her identity. She just wanted to be a child.

Tichaona Mudhobhi with Abel Inalegwu

Tichaona Mudhobhi, left, addresses officials in Washington, D.C., as Abel Inalegwu looks on. They traveled to the United States to help raise awareness about the success of CRS programs for children in Africa affected by HIV. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

In an attempt to avoid the stigma of the disease, Norah gave up taking her medicine shortly after being diagnosed. But it was too late. Norah was shunned by her classmates. She had nobody to talk to.

Then, she found a Catholic Relief Services program for orphaned and vulnerable children in Uganda.

With the help of the CRS program, Norah got back on a daily regimen of taking her medicines and decided she would help other children who were infected with the virus.

As a 10-year-old, Norah, now 19, started a support group for youth with HIV. Her group, 28 members strong, offers children with HIV a chance to talk about their fears, encourage each other to take their medicine and socialize.

14-Year-Old Heads Household

CRS recently brought Norah and two others from Africa to Capitol Hill to show Congressional staffers the faces of young adults thriving because of the assistance they received through CRS programs funded by the U.S. government. CRS receives funding for its HIV programs from a variety of sources, including the President's Emergency Plan for AIDSRelief (PEPFAR), the largest commitment by any nation to fighting HIV. This year, Congress has authorized PEPFAR to provide up to $6.7 billion to combat HIV around the world. With PEPFAR funds, CRS provides a wide spectrum of care, including antiretroviral treatment and support for families.

Abel Inalegwu stood before the staffers assembled inside the Cannon House Office Building. The 22-year-old Nigerian spoke of a childhood cut short by the death of his parents.

At the age of 14, Abel became the head of his household, looking after his four younger siblings. He enrolled his family in a CRS program for orphans and vulnerable children. The program helped Abel, who lost his parents, learn about ways to earn and save money to provide for his family.

Abel spoke about how the program helped him earn enough money to pay for his first motorcycle, which helped him start working as a motorcycle taxi driver.

After he started earning enough money to care for his siblings, Abel withdrew his family from the program to open up spots for other children to receive help. Then, wanting to give back to his community, he adopted a 4-year-old orphan from his community.

'Potential in Us All'

Sitting at a boardroom table in the Russell Senate Office Building, Tichaona Mudhobhi, a 20-year-old from Zimbabwe, spoke about the impact of the CRS programs and his hope for the future.

Tichaona silenced the room as he spoke of the darkest days of his life as a child growing up with HIV. He credits a CRS program, Children Living with HIV and AIDS, with helping him persevere.

"I thought I was a nobody. But, now I think I'm somebody in my life," Tichaona said. "We need to be someone in life. God created potential in us all."

Later, at the group's last meeting of the day, Tichaona paused and looked at the faces in the room. For a moment, this was not a day to talk about the statistics of those helped or the dollars spent. This was a moment for people in Washington to see the faces of people who have flourished because of their help and for Tichaona to see the faces of those who made a difference in his life. He made sure those assembled knew how much of a difference their help made to orphaned and vulnerable children across the world.

"You've been a mother to the motherless."

Patrick Carney is an associate web producer, writer and editor for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in CRS headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.

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