'Miracle' girl who became face of Live Aid triumphs with graduation

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The Independent Online

The image of a young Ethiopian girl ravaged by hunger and 15 minutes from death came to symbolise Live Aid's 1985 plea for money for the victims of the devastating famine. Birhan Woldu, described as a "miracle baby", survived the 1984 humanitarian crisis and was seen as a symbol of hope for Ethiopia.

Yesterday, in a triumphant reversal of fortune, she graduated from university with a diploma in agricultural science after studying at the Wukro Technical and Vocational College in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, where she grew up.

A scholarship from the African Children's Educational Trust paid for her studies, which she hopes to combine with a degree in nursing. She intends to work among farming families in the impoverished northern provinces of Ethiopia. She will also help her father, Abu, to grow tea and coffee in the village of Quiha, the epicentre of the 1984 famine where more than one million people - mainly children - died as civil war raged.

Her home is a stone hut, where she lives with her 58-year-old father, her stepmother and seven brothers and sisters. The family survives on £80 a month provided by the Educational Trust, and the food Ms Woldu grows.

"I am thrilled she has passed," said Bob Geldof, who pioneered the Live Aid campaign. "She has come to symbolise Ethiopia's plight, from the very first film of her. She is probably unaware of that, which is part of her charm. She is a single example of the waste of humanity, when not just one person died but a million people around her.

"It is extraordinary she has become a worldwide symbol, but she bears it well; she is dignified, dynamic, elegant and intellectual. I hope she goes on to lead a fantastic life. It is unbelievable that this is the same scrap of a girl."

Last year, aged 23, Ms Woldu made her first trip outside Ethiopia, travelling 3,700 miles to appear on stage with Geldof and Madonna in London for the Live8 concert.

When Geldof described her to the crowds as "a beacon of hope and inspiration to millions, proof we can make a difference", it became clear that her recovery had been seen worldwide as a symbol of hope for Africa.

Introducing her to the crowd, Geldof said: "Some of you were here 20 years ago. Some of you weren't even born. I want to show you why we started this long walk to justice. Don't let them tell you this doesn't work."

Through an interpreter, Ms Woldu told the crowd: "It was Live Aid that helped to save my life - and now I believe together we can save the lives of millions more. We Africans love you very much. It is a great honour to be here at the start of the Live8. Please continue to support the Live8; we love you very much. Thank you."

The first Live Aid raised £110m. Six days after the 2005 Live8 concerts, the world's richest nations announced £28.8bn extra aid for Africa, plus measures on debt, trade and health.

Ms Woldu has said that her proximity to death has left her "grateful to be alive". Her grave was being dug alongside thousands of other victims of the famine and her death seemed inevitable before rehydration injections given to her by a nurse saved her life. She told Brian Stewart, a Canadian reporter who was with the team that filmed her fragile body in her father's arms: "I could have been just dust by now, but I'm not. I'm alive to see beauty around me, and to see new things. I'm very happy."

But she cannot hear of the famine that killed so many, including her mother and sister, without crying. "I don't remember it, and I'm glad I didn't. I'm glad I didn't see my people die in that terrible time. It is past. I don't see it the way adults see it, and I'm glad I did not see it."

Her education was part of a scholarship scheme run by the African Children's Educational Trust (A-CET), a Leicester-based charity that sponsors the education of more than 2,000 youngsters. A-CET's chief executive, David Stables, said: "We are proud of Birhan's academic achievements. This epitomises much of what we are doing. It is important to feed starving people during famines, but it is equally important to try to make sure famines do not occur again or so often.

"By educating the youngsters and particularly in Birhan's case, for her to get a diploma in agriculture, should help. By supporting the education of vulnerable Ethiopian youngsters, this can be their way out of poverty. Birhan has shown the way."

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