A Christmas Miracle: MetroAtlanta Ambulance Donates an Ambulance to Ethiopian Hospital

Dec 26, 2011

 ATLANTA — It was five years ago at Christmastime that one of the most remarkable Help Desk stories 11Alive News has ever done came to a dramatic ending. Atlanta resident Sebri Omer built a hospital in his hometown of Harar, Ethiopia, but he needed an ambulance. After a lot of work we found him one, and you won't believe how we got it over there.  

We wanted to update you on the story because much has changed.  And the monumental effort of the Atlanta community to help Sebri continues.  This past fall, 11Alive photojournalist Stephen Boissy traveled with Sebri to get this story. It's the story of how hope can overcome any obstacle and make for the perfect Christmas miracle.      

Harar, Ethiopia is a place with really only two kinds of people.  Those who make $1, maybe $2…and those with nothing at all. There's no safety net.  But they're also a proud people with a rich culture and history dating back thousands of years.  And they look out for each other.  Maybe the best example of that is Sebri Omer. In 2004 he opened the 53 bed Yemage Medical Center. Yemage means hope, a perfect name for a place that means so much to its community and Sebri's hometown. Each day, some 80 people come seeking treatment, and of those, 20 are admitted for the night. 

"They deserve better even though they didn't get chance to come to the United States and get the same opportunity that I got," Sebri said. "At least I can share that with them."

The hospital's mission is simple: provide first class medical care that the people can afford. Here if you need an aspirin, you can get 10 for 57 cents.  A simple lab test for the same price.  But if you need a blood test, hold on to your wallets, because it's going to cost a $1.14.  And there are urgeries. Mohammed Youseff  came in with a cyst inside the cord carrying nerve endings to his spine. It's delicate work. 

You see a lot of equipment from Atlanta in this hospital. Most of it is donated by the Atlanta charity MedShare. Sebri had everything he needed except one thing.  He didn't have an ambulance, until the 11Alive's Help Desk got involved.

After four months of work and with Metro Atlanta Ambulance Service's  generous donation, Sebri got his ambulance.  There was just one major problem: getting it there!  But then the stars aligned for the perfect Christmas miracle. 

Atlanta-based World Airlines had just signed a contract for flying cargo in and out of Ethiopia.  Without hesitation, they agreed to fly it for free.  So just a few days after Christmas 2006, under the lights of Hartsfield-Jackson, the ambulance left for the people of Harar, Ethiopia.  A few months later World Airlines would be bought by another company. 

Five years after the miracle, the ambulance is still saving lives.  One night while we were there, Bontu Abdurahman came in bleeding out from an ectopic pregnancy.  Doctors said she had already lost more than three liters of blood and was near death. They needed blood badly and used the ambulance to drive to the Red Cross for blood. Without it, they would have had to walk or call and wait for a taxi.  Meanwhile Bontu probably would have died. Instead she came through the surgery with an excellent prognosis. 

Metro Atlanta's help didn't stop with the ambulance.  After seeing our stories, Alpharetta orthodontist Daniel Burnstein donated a full dental suite. Sebri also won an 11alive Community Service Award, where Aaron's Rents founder Charlie Loudermilk surprised all our winners with a donation of $10,000 each. 

Back in Ethiopia, it's a constant struggle of battling back human suffering, something Sebri knows all to well.  It's The story of how he ended up in Atlanta.  It was 1976 and the brutal dictator Mengistu had not only come to power but started a war with Somalia.  There was a youth revolt kind of like the Arab Spring we just witnessed. But without cellphone cameras and the Internet, Mengistu retaliated without the eyes of the world watching. He ordered his army to start killing teenage boys and young men regardless of whether or not they were protestors. 

11Alive photojournalist Stephen Boissy went with Sebri to his old home where members of his family still live. It was here for a whole year that Sebri's parents hid him, with the army, just outside their door. "You could hear it, and those big shoes you didn't know if they were going to jump over the fence and take you out," Sebri said while standing in his old room. After a year of hiding, Sebri's parents faced a horrible decision: continue trying to hide him or help him escape to a refugee camp and risk losing all their lives along the way. They decided to take a chance. Late one night, they hid him underneath the seat of a bus and headed for the desert. "There was a lot of crying because they didn't know if we would ever see each other again," Sebri said while standing in the same spot where his parents said goodbye to him so many years ago. Sebri walked for 6 weeks across the desert at night, evading the army, and ending up at a U.N. refugee camp in Djibouti, where he lived for the next three years. 

The U.S. agreed to accept him as a refugee. He came first to Philadelphia then later Atlanta in 1990. He could have left his old life behind him, but Sebri was bigger than that. He wanted to help his people, those living in the most desperate of desperate situations.  

Boissy went out with Sebri delivering blankets to people living with HIV/AIDS.  In a bombed out, shot up, group of buildings, more than 200 children live with HIV.  If their parents are still alive they live here too.  There's no sanitation. A dumpster filled with mosquitos sits just outside the door. But there's also something remarkable here. 

Despite living with HIV and mosquitos all over her, kids like little Elsa Getahun are strong and proud. Sebri has helped give them all life by giving them HIV/AIDS medications for free.

"I wish I could do more," Sebri said while standing in a home without a roof. "Seeing what I see sometimes, it takes more than just one person."

Sebri wants to move the patients to a hospice center, which he would like to build on an empty lot behind his hospital. But he doesn't have the money.  He sold one of his two gas stations to build Yemage Medical Center in the first place. Now he has nothing else to sell. 

Since we last covered Sebri's story, he lost his other gas station to the economy and big box stores moving in next door. He now works at the Home Depot in Cumming, seerving customers there about 10 months out of year and spending the rest of his time at his hospital. For now his field of dreams will just have to stay that way, a dream. 

"We may not get everything we want, and that's pretty tough," Sebri said. "We live fairly and fair living, that's all we need." Regardless of his business circumstances, miracles happen at Yemage Medical Center every day because of Sebri Omer. The sick are healed and dozens of babies are born here every month in a clean, safe, sterile environment. It only costs the parents $35, but what they leave with is priceless.

Click here for the full story from 11ALIVE

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