She came to Southern California in 1978, escaping the brutal war plaguing her homeland of Eritrea
, which was overtaken by neighboring Ethiopia
in 1960. For the next thirty years Eritrea would fight for its independence, claiming victory in 1991, along with the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers, leaving their widows and now-fatherless children in the wake of the battle. The country was left in a state of poverty; many women had eight or nine children but no education or means to provide for their families. Zebiba is lucky to have made it out of the turmoil and aftermath of the bloody war, but after arriving in the U.S., she always thought of her homeland and the people she left behind. Zebiba said to herself, “Yeah, you are aware of it, Zebiba, but what are you doing about it? Being aware of it is not enough; you have to take action, too.” And so she founded Healing Bridges, a local charity that helps women and children in Northern Africa.
The foundation is run from Santa Monica, and Zebiba travels to Africa two or three times a year to oversee funding. She has connected American sponsors with over 200 Eritrean children, spreading opportunity with the hope of evaporating poverty. On the web site, www.healingbridges.org, you can scroll through pictures of children waiting to be sponsored and get a sense of the abounding human spirit. At many Eritrean schools, children line up at five in the morning to get bread, and even then there isn’t enough for everyone. Zebiba makes sure that money brought in through Healing Bridges is used efficiently, so that every child can eat. The foundation currently feeds and educates 200 children at the cost of $5000 a month. For Zebiba, it can be a struggle to come up with the money; but she takes on the full-time responsibility as if she was the mother to each and every child. Whatever the challenge, she makes it happen. All the money currently comes from donors, and any amount of donation is helpful. She wants the organization to flourish until all children in Eritrea are given the opportunity to go to school, and she plans to make sure that sponsored children receive at least a high-school-level education.
In addition to her efforts with children, Zebiba helps single mothers become self-sufficient. Her work has caught the attention of some of the world’s leading humanitarians, and she is set to join forces with Muhammad Yunus
, founder of the Grameen Bank
and a subsequent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize
in 2006. Grameen Bank has loaned about $6 billion to women, primarily in Bangladesh, to help them provide for their families by getting them homes, and thus set up a foundation from which they can work. The micro-loans are very successful, and ninety-nine percent of them are repaid. Zebiba will work with Yunus to adapt Grameen’s model into Eritrea’s society. Healing Bridges has also joined The Sole of Africa Campaign
, patroned by Nelson Mandela, his wife Graca Machel, among others, to help empower the continent. They now have a school being established in Mozambique, with funding provided by the social community Humanity Unites Brilliance (HUB).
Zebiba’s brilliance in her compassion for humanity doesn’t end there. Her book, Healing Bridges: From Africa to America and Back Again, hit bookstores in January 2008. In it she recalls the turmoil of war, her escape into America and her drive to help those left behind.
“In Africa there is no bank account, there is no savings,” she says. “What you have you share…your bank account is your village, your bank account is your neighbors, your community. So I grew up sharing everything,” she says in her assured, melodic voice. “I will be doing this until I take my last breath.”