Helping Street Children find their way back home
By Jim Fohn
KIGALI, Rwanda, 20 September 2011: Hundreds of former street children in Kigali are returning to homes they once deserted, thanks to the help of centers like FIDESCO, supported by UNICEF.
FIDESCO Rwanda was created in 1994 to provide a safe haven for vulnerable children. Today it is a transit center for children who live on the street – a half-way home – before they are reunited with their families.
Elisa Kwizera, a 13-year-old former street child who is now the top-ranked student in his class, standing by some bananas from his mother’s food stand in Kigali, Rwanda, Anjan Sundaram.
“And when we do reunite a child, we don’t just leave him with his family and walk away,” explains Joseph Bitega, Coordinator of FIDESCO. “What we have found is that families often need help, both economic and psychological, to properly take care of their child. Most of these families live in poverty and are unable to pay for food and education. This is why many children run away. We need to solve the underlying problems, to help the child stay, otherwise he might leave again.”
“We start the process of looking for their families,” says Bitega. “But many children are very apprehensive to see their families again, since the relationship has often been broken, which is why we make accompanied visits and act as guarantors in case something happens.”
To help families, FIDESCO also links them with the government’s Social Protection Programme local cooperatives and, where possible, provides them with microcredit loans. The immediate community is also involved and encouraged to provide help if necessary.
This is how Elisa Kwizera’s family befitted. Elisa Kwizera, a 13-year-old student, who had lived on the street for three years before finding himself at a police transit center. There he met a social worker from FIDESCO and decided to go with him.
“There was no use staying at home. We had no food, I had quit school, so I ran away,” he explains.
But now, back in his family, Elisa is the top student in his class. “I study hard now. That’s why I’m first in the class and my mother is proud.”
“I used to cry every day after he left us,” she recounts. “It is such a joy to have him back. I got a US$ 300 loan from FIDESCO to begin a small vegetable stand. My husband earns a small salary as a security guard, but my stand is now the main source of income for the family and the reason Elisa has decided to stay. I am so happy.”
“That doesn’t mean all our problems are solved, though,” explains Elisa. “My school has asked me to buy a geometry set and more notebooks. Where will I get the money? And this school is far. It takes me three hours to get there and back each day. If I run, I can get there in 45 minutes,” he adds.
“We can’t change everything in the life of these children,” explains Bitega, but at least we can support them and their families to do a little better. The key, of course, is for the child to have the will to return, for the child and family to reconcile, and for the parents to behave responsibly.
“We often have to counsel families. And if that doesn’t work we have to inform them that the state will look into the matter, but it isn’t always easy,” he explains.
“Helping children who have lived through extreme experiences is difficult work, and often the staff at FIDESCO are stretched thin. It would be really helpful to have more psychologists and more recreational facilities. Play is important for the child. It is a way for them to find expression. Children who won’t talk to us will suddenly start talking while playing football, or when singing a song. We would like to start a children’s orchestra. That would be beautiful,” he adds.
UNICEF has supported FIDESCO since 2004 with both technical and financial assistance to help the center carry out its activities. UNICEF believes that all children have a right to survive and thrive, which is why it works with government and civil society to strengthen child protection systems, including laws and regulations, and to model effective protection and reintegration programmes, through centres like FIDESCO.
“We have been working with FIDESCO and another centre like it to develop a reintegration model for children like Elisa that is effective and sustainable,” explains Maxime Germain, Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF. “We hope the results we have been able to achieve will now be replicated in all centres that cater to street children in Rwanda.”