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Alone in Benin, a Togolese teen finds refuge and the courage to return home

© UNICEF Benin 2006/Lorho
Back home in Togo after months as a refugee in Benin, Koko, 17, resumes work as a hairdresser’s apprentice.
By Chantal Lorho

ANEHO, Togo, 22 May 2006 – The heat is oppressive here in Aneho, a small, quiet town. It is hard to imagine that just over a year ago the streets were filled with noise and rage.

In April 2005, this West African nation was plunged into violence after presidential elections. Thousands of refugees crossed the border into neighbouring Benin. Many children were separated from their families and became vulnerable to trafficking. UNICEF has so far reunited more than 200 children with their families.

This is the story of one of those children.

Settling in at refugee camp

Koko, 17, is a hairdresser’s apprentice. He remembers April 2005 with emotion. “I was at the shop when violence broke out, just after the announcement of the presidential results,” he said. “I ran towards home but armed men were shooting in all directions, so, like everyone else, I swam across the river.”

He joined thousands of others making their way to the border post of Hillacondji in Benin. As an unaccompanied child, he was taken to Comé camp, where he was registered and settled by UNICEF in an area specially designed for children arriving alone.

“They asked me to talk about myself, where I was coming from, why I had left and my father’s address,” recalls Koko. “They took a photo of me. Then they showed me the tent which I was going to share with some friends. Time went by fast. We ate well, we played football, but I didn’t want to go to school because I had already started learning hairdressing.”

Koko thought that his new refugee status would allow him to fly to America. It was a hope that was quickly crushed – but even so, he didn’t want to return to Togo.

Reunited with family

“Unaccompanied children like Koko are not necessarily keen to leave Comé camp,” says UNICEF child protection consultant Christian Michaud. “Many come from underprivileged backgrounds and judge life at the camp rather easy. Here they are fed, clothed and taken care of. We had to give Koko the desire to go home.”

Gaining Koko’s trust was an important part of UNICEF’s work. Eventually he was persuaded to give the address of his father, who had stayed behind in Aneho. Then he was reunited with his family.

Equipped with his ‘reunification kit’ – including a set of clothes, toiletries and a pair of hair clippers – Koko returned to his trade. Six months later, monitored regularly by UNICEF, the apprentice considers his future with serenity.

“My boss is pleased, he says I am progressing well,” says Koko, brushing his client’s hair with care.



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