Separated children find home and happiness in South Sudan
By Harriet Martin
Khartoum/Juba June 4, 2012: Sixteen-year old Stella Khamis Philip and her four younger siblings live with their aunt and uncle on the outskirts of Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Her uncle, Joseph Tombura, runs a stall in the market nearby and every day she attends school.
The simple brick dwelling that the family share in the community of Hai Ishlag may not look much. But for Stella, Mary (14), Joyce (8), Dolin (6) and James (4), it’s a huge improvement on their former existence in a slum area of Khartoum, 1,200 kilometres to the north, where they were living until a few months ago.
Left parentless after their mother died in 2008, (her father had already abandoned the family) Stella took on responsibility for looking after her three sisters and baby brother. The children were vulnerable and insecure. “We could never be sure where our next meal would come from,” Stella recalls.
Today, Stella’s outlook is transformed.
“Life here is better,” she says, “because we live with our uncle who can protect and provide for us.”
Life here is better, because we live with our uncle who can protect and provide for us". Stella Philip, 16
Stella and her brother and sisters are not the only children of South Sudan origin, who found themselves on the wrong side of the border when Sudan split into two countries in July 2011, and without families to care for them. Altogether, around 500 children found themselves in this vulnerable situation. Many of them have never been to South Sudan.
South Sudan’s independence left the status of the estimated half a million Southerners still living in Sudan unclear. By early 2012, hundreds of thousands had left to start a new life in the south.
But the risks facing children with no parents or relatives to look after them was a matter of great concern.
“We were extremely worried about what might happen to these children,” said Stephen Blight, UNICEF Chief of Child Protection, Sudan office.
“As a result, we worked closely with the National Council for Child Welfare (NCCW) and other partners to ensure that children would be moved south safely, and that they had homes waiting for them once they arrived there.”
In order to make this happen, the NCCW’s Family Tracing and Reunification (FTR), funded by UNICEF, has been working closely with its South Sudanese counterpart and the UNICEF South Sudan country office. This collaboration was based on a Memorandum of Understanding the two countries signed for the protection of separated and unaccompanied children. UNICEF is supporting the current implementation and extension of this agreement.
“Their lives were truly miserable,” recalls Khamisa who covers the area of Hadj Yusif, in east Khartoum, where they were living in desperate poverty. “I was really concerned, because these children were in evident danger.”
Caring for the children’s daily needs was one thing. But what they really needed was a permanent home where they could be looked after in the long term.
Mohamed Habib, the senior social worker in the FTR unit, takes up the story: “We found out that the children had the phone number of an uncle in Juba. So we contacted him directly, and also our colleagues in Juba so they could meet him and see if he would be willing and able to take the children. And he was.”
On 15 January this year all five children boarded a plane chartered by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) and were flown to Juba.
“Helping to reunite these children with their uncle renews their hopes and offers them a chance to live again in a protective family environment and grow to develop to their full potential”, said Fatuma Ibrahim, Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF South Sudan
“We need to continue to work together with government authorities, partners and local communities to ensure children in such circumstances are taken care of and given a new start to life”, she added.
Since their arrival, UNICEF’s child protection team has visited regularly to check that the children are in school. It appears they have settled well.
“They are now going to school and can continue to learn and develop,” says their aunt, Grace James. “Their arrival is a new happiness for us.”