Thomas Awiapo: Just one face among many aided by Operation Rice Bowl

By | April 8, 2009

Childhood was a struggle for Awiapo. His small village didn’t have electricity or running water, and food was scarce.

“I didn’t know about electricity,” he said. “The only light we had at night was the moonlight. We had no access to clean water. We had to walk miles to the river for water, and we had to share the river with the animals. I know many people who passed (away), many children who died from drinking that water.”

Awiapo was orphaned as a young boy. His father died when he was 8, and his mother a year later. He was left with his three brothers to survive on their own.

“I was really, really not happy with God,” he said. “I had more questions than answers. Parents are an irreplaceable gift.

“We went to bed many nights very hungry,” he added. “We cried for food. We fought one another for food. We were lucky to get one meal a night and we had to fight for it.”

Awiapo’s younger brothers eventually died of malnutrition. His older brother disappeared.

“He gave up,” said Awiapo. “Life was too miserable for him. I woke up one day and he was gone. He had left the village and I had no way to find him.”

Awiapo offered some comic relief for the students by sharing a comment by a young person at a previous speaking engagement.
“When I told them about my brother, one boy asked his name and said ‘we can Google him up,'” he said.

CRS saved Awiapo’s life. The relief and development agency built a school in Wiaga.

“They tricked me to go to school,” he said. “I went to school because it was the only place I could find a snack.”

The school lunch lured Awiapo into the classroom and kept him coming back. Today, he holds a master’s degree in public administration from California State University in Hayward.

“This box was the greatest justice to me,” he said. “Operation Rice Bowl is the miracle of my life. I’m here with a message of thanks. I am a recipient of the good work of Catholic Relief Services. It is your agency. We are called by Christ to be compassionate. Catholic Relief Services brings compassion. It brings justice. It brings love. It brings hope to more than 100 countries.”

Awiapo also joined students and staff for the weekly Alternative Meal Deal at Notre Dame. Each Wednesday during Lent, a meal is prepared from a CRS recipe. Participants make an Operation Rice Bowl donation. Franciscan Sr. Laura Zelton, campus minister and coordinator of the meal program, made groundnut stew for Awiapo’s visit, which he described as “better quality” than in his homeland.

Jesús Huerta, a relationship manager for CRS Midwest in Chicago, accompanied Awiapo, who also spoke at St. Norbert College in De Pere and at the Newman Center at UW-Oshkosh. His visit to the diocese marked the close of a 10-week U.S. tour. While he was away, his wife gave birth to their fourth child, a girl. While anxious to go home to see his new daughter, Awiapo said the annual trips to this country are essential for the support of CRS.

“So many people give,” he said. “At some point, you should see a face, hear a voice, hear a story about what your support means.”

CRS was established in 1943. The late Bishop Aloysius Wycislo, bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay from 1968 to 1983, was one of the agency’s founders. Operation Rice Bowl began in 1975. For more information, visit

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