Since he arrived in Sierra Leone in 2008, Father Themis Adamopoulos has lived the poverty of one of the poorest countries in the world, witnessing the daily struggles of its people. In 2014, when the Ebola crisis hit a country already on its knees after a 12-year civil war, Father Themi was not about to give up on its people.
At the time of the apocalyptic Ebola epidemic, when doctors, nurses and non-governmental organisations were leaving, Father Themi remained, determined to help locals fight the deadly virus.
In April of 2014, Reverend Themi – as he is also known – was one of the first public figures in Sierra Leone to call for a worldwide emergency response to the problem.
And what hurt him most, he says today, was that all those calls for international help went unanswered, while Ebola was spreading like wildfire through Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
“The big countries did absolutely nothing – until an American in Liberia contracted the virus, and a British nurse as well, so they got scared that it was now going to spread outside of Africa, and that’s when they started sending us all the help. But they didn’t send it because they wanted to help the people – really underneath it was that they just wanted to stop it from going out of Africa,” Father Themi explains with sadness.
On the other side, an outpouring of support was constant from Paradise4Kids donors, the charity he started when he first arrived, that sent container shipments of food, gloves, chlorine and other medical supplies from Australia to Father Themi and the Holy Mission in Sierra Leone.
When, after a year and a half, the Ebola outbreak was officially declared over by the World Health Organisation in November 2015, Father Themi announced that by the Grace of God not one person under his care died or was even infected with the Ebola virus.
Elsewhere, the aftermath of the dreadful virus was 11,000 people dead in West Africa, and 4,000 in Sierra Leone.
Hundreds of Ebola orphans were left to wander the streets for food. These children lost both their parents and in many cases most of their extended family to Ebola.
“The problem is that when you’re an orphan in West Africa, there is no social welfare, no money,” says Father Themi.
“The work that the church does – including the Greek Orthodox Church – is very important, we are some sort of a social welfare. If you have no job, you are a widow or disabled – there is nowhere to go. The church in Africa – as well as the non-governmental organisations – play a very important role, from both a spiritual and social point of view,” he continues.
With Ebola orphans wandering the streets of Freetown, a mission is now underway to build orphanages that will house these children and secure their healthy upbringing.
“As a Holy Mission in Sierra Leone, we have started the program where 100-150 orphaned children will be placed in several orphanages. The first orphanage will welcome children from three to six years of age, and older children will be placed in another orphanage. Also, we have 1.5 acres of land at the seaside where we are planning to build a retreat centre, where the kids will be able to go on weekends to play, swim, walk in the sand,” Father Themi tells Neos Kosmos.
When completed, Father Themi will be able to house, feed and educate hundreds of children with nowhere else to go and no one else to care for them.
“Children are tomorrow’s future, so how they are raised will influence who they become. We want these children to grow up to be the generation that will have influence for change within Sierra Leone, and around the world.”
To be built on the grounds of the Waterloo Disabled Village – whose former residents have been equipped with skills to work and make their own living – the Waterloo Children’s Village will consist of 12 houses. Each home will house 16 orphans and a mother figure who will take care of them. The mission is to house no less than 96 children orphaned by the Ebola crisis.
“We are going to create two large orphanages – one of them will consist of a group of houses with a mother figure in each one. The mother figure will always be present. It will be a local lady, a nurse or a teacher – a young, single woman, with training in psychology and child development. We also have a teacher’s college within our church, so we are training people to be early childhood teachers.”
Apart from its protégés, the second orphanage will also welcome numerous Australians and other volunteers who will have their input in the work of the orphanage – thus bringing a kind of international standard to care and teaching.
“These kids at the moment live with their grandparents, cousins, in a hut, with mud instead of a floor.
“It is our mission, our purpose, our passion to place the Ebola orphans in families where they will receive unconditional love, spiritual discipleship, care and nurture, and have their physical needs met,” says Father Themi.
In order to receive a home, food, clothing, medical attention, education and to be taken care of by a mother, each child needs approximately $7,300.
Now in existence for over 15 years, Paradise4Kids is a charity that supports the mission in Sierra Leone and raises the money. The biggest support comes from Australia, where Father Themi was raised, and the USA, where he completed his studies.
Every year Father Themi returns to his home city of Melbourne for one month to raise awareness of the poor living in Sierra Leone, which is considered one of the poorest countries in the world. This time, he will be raising awareness of the mission to build the Waterloo Children’s Village for children orphaned by the Ebola crisis.
“We don’t have a deadline, but God willing, this time next year the orphanage will be working,” he says with confidence.
A DAY IN SIERRA LEONE
Every Sunday in the Greek Orthodox Church in Freetown, the faithful would gather to hear the word of God from the mouth of Reverend Themis Adamopoulos. When the Father would give antidoro at the end of service, kids would wait in a queue over and over again, to get one more piece of bread. For most of them, that would be their meal for the day. Now, every Sunday, a free hot meal is served for everyone after the service.
“The circumstances are not good for the children – many kids in Sierra Leone will die before they reach the age of five, due to diseases that are a product of the lack of hygiene. And the fact that there is no running water doesn’t make it easier.”
But it’s the African mothers, in Father Themi’s eyes, that are the most troubled and most doleful women in the world.
“You are a mother and you have four kids. The statistics show that women in West Africa and in Third World countries all over the world live with less than $2 a day. Every day they need to make a decision – to buy soap or food. The answer is always food.”
Sending her kids to school is another battle an African woman needs to take on. Theoretically speaking, the schooling is free, but with the very low wages that teachers have, they are finding ways to take more money from students themselves. An ever-present phenomenon is teachers who cover just over half of the planned lecture – students who want to complete it need to pay extra money to do it on the weekends or after hours.
“In the school that we have founded, the teachers have a good wage, and I have strictly forbidden them to take any money whatsoever from the students.”
But Father Themi can’t blame them. In this one – and other countries of the so-called Third World − there is no working class. There are the poor. There are no opportunities; it’s all about survival, and what people scramble for are the two basic things – shelter and food.
The wealth that exists in developed countries, like Australia, in economic terms is wonderful, says Father Themi, until people start taking it for granted.
“What happens here is a kind of disconnection from reality, because the priorities we have, have become a little trivial. We may argue about what Brad Pitt’s last movie was, and if he is a good actor or not – and these discussions are really superfluous when 80 per cent of the world is starving.
“You know how whales sometimes get stuck on the beach? Thousands of people will gather to help the whale, put it back into the water, and will feel that they did something great. They give so much time to help animals, but they forget the children who are dying. From starvation. That’s what I mean when I say priorities.”
In Freetown, alongside Father Themi, there are other Greek Orthodox priests – all of them indigenous.
Kefala is now Father Kyriakos, Edmund became Father Elefterios, and Viktor is Father Vaios.
These are the people who have never gotten in touch with Orthodoxy before, and had no idea what it was. When Father Themi arrived, everything was to be built from scratch – incense, the icons, everything was new. The service, vespers, Kyrie Eleison, had to be taught.
With his service within the church and as a philanthropist, the locals still were not sure if this holy mission was there to make money from them, or whether Father Themi was honest. At the end of the day, he was just one of many foreigners in Africa.
It was only through the test of time of a long Ebola outbreak that Father Themi was able to legitimise his position as an authentic person rather than a charlatan, he says.
“What cemented it for me is that I stayed during the Ebola crisis – I didn’t leave. The fact that I endangered my life – I was in the same boat like everybody else – and staying on really made them feel like I am there to help them.”
Continuing to support Father Themi and his mission, Paradise4Kids held the first of its two annual fundraiser dinners in Melbourne on Saturday 10 September, and will be hosting the second on Saturday 17 September.
All the proceeds of the event will go towards building the Waterloo and Tower Hill Children’s orphanages in Sierra Leone.
“To our Greek community, and all the Orthodox, you are welcome to come and see what the Orthodox Church is doing in Africa. It’s amazing how privileged we are here and we should be very grateful for what we have.
“As citizens of the prosperous modern nation we are blessed by the Lord. Being so blessed, we have a holy obligation to help our brothers and sisters who struggle daily for the necessities of life,” Father Themi says.
* The second intimate fundraising event for Paradise4Kids will be held on Saturday 17 September at the William Angliss Institute, 555 Latrobe Street, Melbourne at 6.30 pm. To book tickets, contact Jane Pallot on 0404 040 578 or visit www.paradise4kids.org/2016-melbourne-with-fr-themi