In 2021, the Mek'ele Youth Centre celebrates twenty years. We look back at how thousands of children, many of whom have come to know ‘MYC' as a second home, have been impacted
Words and pictures by Tim Coleman
“I feel happy at MYC. So do my friends. You can see it from their faces.”
Leul has been coming to Mek'ele Youth Centre, known as ‘MYC' by everyone here, for a number of years.
Located in the capital city of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, there is a buzz around MYC. A warm welcome awaits. It’s a safe and secure environment so the youth can relax, plus it is a place packed with facilities to enjoy.
Each and every way you look, there is something going on; English, computer and health awareness classes, children standing and talking, board games being played, a football field where the dust rarely settles, basketball players erupting into action, the noise of a table tennis balls whacked back and forth at high speed, echoing in the main hall. You will also see volleyball, tennis, taekwondo and acrobatics.
This place is full of life.
“Children spend their time here, especially on the weekends”, says table tennis coach Giday Assefa. “There are a lot of bad things in our city. If the children do not come here, they get involved in other bad things, like getting drunk.”
Watching Leul as he interacts with friends and shoots hoops, his words ring true. He and those around him are happy here. They are relaxed. "MYC has helped to shape my life in a positive manner”, Leul continues. “With the HIV/ AIDS programme, computer and library classes, I have acquired good knowledge that helps me stay healthy and aware.”
Walk out the front door at home, and MYC is often the first place young people think of going. Day after day. It’s like a second home.
MYC: Opportunity for all
As the busiest youth centre in the city, MYC offers opportunities for children who simply would not find them elsewhere.
Big and small, girls and boys, able-bodied and physically challenged. All get a chance here.
In northern Ethiopia, girls tend not to get the same opportunities as boys. Yet here, the same facilities are available. The girls regularly win medals in regional table tennis tournaments, plus there is a basketball team.
There are also opportunities for those with physical challenges, such as those in wheelchairs and those who are deaf.
Table tennis coach Giday is one of a few staff to have learnt sign language in order to communicate more effectively with the deaf youth. MYC is a wonderful place for those with physical challenges to connect with each other.
Today, youth with disabilities at MYC win most of the regional medals in table tennis. At a national level, children have won silver and bronze medals. There is also a deaf football team and a wheelchair basketball team.
These achievements are not possible without the resources that MYC boasts. Sporting victories are testament to how people have and continue to invest themselves and their resources into this place.
MYC: Equipping a generation
Rufael’s journey with MYC goes way back. Fourteen years ago (2005), he left Eritrea just to the north, because of the war, and came to Mek’ele. For a sociable eighteen-year-old, there was not too much to do in the area. But then he came across the Mek'ele Youth Centre.
There was nowhere else like MYC.
At the time, he had no higher-level education. Naturally, he was drawn to the library and the books freely available. SIM worker Jon Nykamp - who is the MYC Centre Director - noticed Rufael's interest in the books and diligence in keeping the place tidy.
Rufael was quickly rewarded with some part time work and recalls the day he was handed his first pay, “That was the real beginning of my journey with MYC”.
Over the years, he completed numerous activities and courses in the youth centre that led into higher-level education. Now, Rufael holds two degrees and, among other roles, he works at MYC as the Youth Development Coordinator.
Rufael divides his work time to be at MYC. He has a good income now. And he’s not the only young person to come through the MYC doors that contributes to society.
“There are plenty of other children that are getting the opportunities I did too. We see people in all areas of community - police, pilots - many of whom have spent a lot of time at MYC”, says Rufael.
Equipping young people so that they can contribute to the greater good of their country - that’s what MYC does.
MYC enables the youth to dream bigger, it’s a home of opportunity.
MYC: Firm Foundations
For staff, the youth centre is a great place to get to know the children and build trusting relationships. From those relationships, there are plenty of natural opportunities to speak into their lives.
MYC Centre Director Jon Nykamp says, "Many of the children simply need a brother, sister, even a mother and father figure to take interest in them. Our goal is to see them growing and developing in every way. To find true life and live it to the fullest. We get to walk with them and give them the tools they need for fruitful lives."
It’s exciting to see how the lives of the youth here are being impacted.
MYC: Vision for future
Just to the north of Mek'ele, the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea was opened in 2018. With that, Mek'ele’s growth is rapid, numbering at least 500,000 (2018).
Like most of Ethiopia, the percentage of Mek'ele's youth population is very high - approximately 60% are under 18. There is a tremendous opportunity to support young people here, especially as the Mek'ele Youth Centre is well established as the best place to come for miles around.
The facts are plain and simple, though. A single youth centre like MYC cannot cater for all the young people in Mek'ele. The staff at MYC know they have a formula that works, and the vision is to roll this out to other centres in the area.
It was in 2001 that SIM approached the Tigray government leaders to ask how it could help and the keen response was regarding youth development.
Now, twenty years on, the shoe is on the other foot and the local government has approached MYC to open more youth centres. There are a number of unused buildings that could be converted into youth centres with relative ease.
Although MYC has operated very well down the years, the staff have a different version for potential new youth centres - being completely community led. It’s a wonderful opportunity for MYC staff to connect with local communities and for them to take ownership of youth centres in the area.
There are many challenge ahead to creating more youth centres, but MYC has shown what is possible and what impact the community can enjoy.
For more information about how to get involved, please visit www.sim.org/contact-us and quote the Mek'ele Youth Centre, Project number ET-92742.