Zahai Röschli is talking about the pivotal moment in her life, in 1984, when she heard about the drought that caused the worst famine to hit Ethiopia in a century. Born and raised in Ethiopia, Zahai had moved to Switzerland in 1975 when she was 20, along with her adoptive family. She had established a good life in her new country but was instantly compelled to return.
“I took out all my savings from the bank, booked a flight to Addis Ababa and travelled to Ethiopia,” she says. “On the news, I had seen the details of the Children’s commission, and I went to see them without an appointment. I told them I wanted to buy food for the people. They told me blankets were even more important as people were dying from the cold. So, with an official letter from the Commission, I travelled 400km north to visit one of the refugee camps and to distribute blankets. I saw some terrible things that will stay with me forever, I saw children die in front of my eyes.”
It had been a highly emotional and distressing trip, but Zahai was now even more determined to help as much as she could. She decided she would try to establish an orphanage for 20 children, but was advised to first return to Switzerland to gain support. Back in Switzerland, Zahai worked hard to gain support, funding and materials. Her parents were supportive but worried – the political and military situation in Ethiopia at the time was far from stable – but nothing was going to prevent Zahai from realising her dream.
Upon raising the money, the only slight change to Zahai’s plan was the number of children she hoped to support – she had raised more than expected, enough for 30 children.
“In January 1986 we started constructing the orphanage and in July the first 32 children from the north joined their new home,” says Zahai. “We gave them the basics they needed in the short term – food, shelter, emergency care. Then as time went on and we grew, we started providing skills and education so the children could really thrive in the longer term.”
This was the start of something incredible. At the end of the first year, the number of children at the orphanage – known as Selam Children’s Village – grew to 69 children between the ages of 3 to 16. Fast forward to today and Selam has built three orphan homes in Ethiopia, providing care and support to over 1,200 orphan children in the space of 37 years, helping them to holistically develop and become self-reliant.
Re&Act – the independent charity that manages the donations raised from the Children’s Walk – has partnered with Selam Children's Village since 2017. Throughout the partnership, Re&Act has supported 63 children in total providing them with holistic physical and psychological care, and funded 84 young adults’ living expenses and formal education.
“I am proud that Selam has helped to change many children’s lives in a positive way,” says Zahai. “We have been lucky to see so many of our children go on to become happy, healthy adults. And when they have children themselves, seeing the difference between the start their children have in life compared to their own start in life, is a reminder of the difference we have made. I hope Selam will continue for a long time. Whatever happens and wherever I am, my heart is always there, with the children.”
Selam Children’s Village founded by Zahai, is just one of the many children’s initiatives in developing countries that Roche supports through Re&Act – the independent charity that manages the donations raised from the Children’s Walk.
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