Jewish ‘survivor’ Returns to Africa in Effort to Help Destitute Kids Survive

When Ethan Zohn returned to Africa to mark World AIDS day, his first priority was to visit the future site of a soccer field. “We want to break down stereotypes and build community,” said Zohn, winner of the CBS reality show “Survivor: Africa” and vice chairman of Grassroot Soccer, a nonprofit organization that strengthens communities through recreation and AIDS education.

“By building this soccer field, we’re making a safe place for people to come and learn about each other,” he said.

World Aids Day was marked Wednesday, during Zohn’s 10-day trip. He will travel to Uganda — followed by People Magazine, which is going to write about him — to see the youth of Namuwongo Zone B and students at Kiwuliriza Primary School, where plans for the sports fields will be unveiled.

The project is made possible through Grassroot Soccer and Project Namuwongo Zone B, whose founder and executive director, Jeremy Goldberg, 24, is on the American Jewish Committee’s Goldman Fellowship program, which focuses on leadership development.

“Sports serves as an outlet to this community, and to communities around the world,” Goldberg said. “It builds morale, teamwork, leadership skills, and it eliminates stigma by breaking down barriers between tribes and between genders.”

Zohn and Goldberg joined forces several months ago, hopeful that the two organizations could teach valuable life skills to Ugandan youth. While Grassroot Soccer focuses on AIDS education and team building through soccer, Project Namuwongo Zone B provides access to clean water, micro-finance loans and school fees for children living in strife.

According to the Web site of the Uganda AIDS Commission, HIV/AIDS cases in Sub Saharan Africa represent 71.3 percent of those living with the disease globally.

The organization said Uganda’s Ministry of Health Surveillance Unit estimated that about 1,050,555 people in Uganda were living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2001, and that more than 940,000 HIV/AIDS-related deaths have occurred since the onset of the epidemic in the country.

During their trip, Goldberg and Zohn will spend several days in Zone B, meeting with local and national government officials to discuss AIDS prevention and awareness and how the groups can further assist the Ugandan government.

“I believe we must understand the cultural and social values of those who are in need in order to help. We must understand who they are, and the life they live,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg describes Namuwongo as an “urban slum.” His first memory of the place is of burning trash heaps and children bathing in bacteria-infected water.

“It was and still is the most severe poverty I’ve witnessed first hand,” he said.

The Zone B sector of Namuwongo is a make-shift community, populated largely by orphans who fled Uganda’s war-ridden northern region. The community lacks a sewer system, piped water, paved roads and electricity.

Goldberg’s goal is to help Zone B become a self-sustaining community.

“What we envision is that the people in the community will someday soon run their own businesses, pay for their children to attend school, take care of medical and health costs, and that they are ultimately less reliant on our aid,” Goldberg said. “We want to act as a catalyst for the community, mobilizing and delivering resources.”

Zohn said that in partnering with Goldberg, he saw something that “I really admired.”

“He’s taking one community and making a commitment to fixing one problem at a time. A lot of companies come” to Africa, “hand out a T-shirt and wave goodbye. But he’s really committed to making it a better place,” Zohn said.

Zohn previously played goalie for soccer teams in Zimbabwe, Hawaii and Massachusetts, and with the U.S. soccer team in the 1997 Maccabiah Games.

He retired in 2000 and took a job with a product-naming firm, but a hiring freeze ended his tenure a day before he was scheduled to start.

When he asked friends for job advice, they joked that he should try out for “Survivor.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Project Namuwongo Zone B recruits college students and recent graduates to live in the community, study it and research ways in which the people can benefit from the organization.

Crafts for Change, a program run by Howard University students, encourages women in Namuwongo to sell their handmade crafts in international markets, such as the United States, Germany and Israel.

More information about Zone B can be found at www.whatiszoneb.org .

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