It’s a sunny late afternoon at Agape Children’s Ministry in Kisumu. Children run around, playing football or netball with staff. Others play checkers with stones on a painted table top. A girl swings on a tyre, trying to make it go as high as she can. Shouts and laughter fill the air. Meanwhile, a young man looks pensively at a row of bunk beds in the boy’s dormitory. Unlike the children outside, most of whom will be in the institution for just a few months before returning home, Samora spent almost his entire childhood in care.
Now an adult, Samora Asere grew up at an institution in Nairobi. He left home with his three siblings at the age of seven, after his parents separated. They both started new families, leaving Samora and his siblings feeling unwelcome in either home. The children were victims of violence, neglect and abuse from the people they trusted to protect them, so Samora thought they would be better off on their own. But life on the streets was harder than he imagined.
“It was like a jungle, survival of the fittest,” Samora says. “We struggled with finding food, where to take a bath, what would happen if we got sick. My nine-year-old brother and I had to step up and become parents to our sisters. We were given drugs to sell. One time, we were sheltering in a market during floods. The girls almost got swept away. We tried to get into a building for shelter, but the guards chased us away and beat us up.”
After several months on the street, the children were spotted by a former neighbour, who took them home and then to an institution. Samora was separated from his sisters and sent to a boys’ home.
“At first it was like heaven. There was food to eat and we were safe from violence,” he says. “But after a while it became a small prison. We lacked basic rights. I lost my language and came out a different person. When I tried to reconnect with my grandmother’s family, they rejected me because I couldn’t communicate with them. I thought, where else can I go?”
Now, Samora is a professional photographer and Chair of the Kenya Society of Care Leavers (KESCA), which provides a support network for people who grew up in institutions. He travelled with UNICEF to Kisumu, to see how the organization is supporting the reintegration of children to families.
One of these institutions is Agape Children’s Ministry. An early adopter of reintegration, they realized that all of the children in their care had extended families who were able and willing to care for them. Global research has also shown that children do better in a supportive family environment, with better health, education and development outcomes, compared to those in institutions.
Since 2008, Agape has been focusing on tracing families of displaced children and preparing these children to return home. Using a scorecard, they assess the family’s needs and provide financial assistance where needed, including for school fees and uniforms. In the last 11 years, Agape has reintegrated more than 3,200 children, with around an 80 percent long-term success rate
“The vast majority of children living in institutions have immediate or extended family still alive,” Agape Kenya Field Director Chris Page says. “And in Kenyan culture, families are willing to look after relatives. It’s very normal for people to have nephews, nieces and grandchildren living with them. We’ve had cases where families have never met the child before but are still happy to take them in.”
Unfortunately, there are new children arriving on the streets of Kisumu every month, so Agape’s work is far from done. But now they have a different mission. “We’ve become a temporary shelter,” Chris explains. “We still rescue children from the streets, but they stay here for months, not years. This means we can help many more children than before. And our goal is always to return them to their family.”
Where the heart is
UNICEF is advocating for children in institutions to be reintegrated with families, wherever possible. This should ideally be with surviving parents or extended family, or with foster or adoptive families where there are no relatives who can do this. As part of this, UNICEF is raising awareness of alternatives to institutional care and is supporting the Government to develop strategies and programmes that promote family-based care of children.
With Samora, UNICEF visited some of the children returned home, including 14-year-old Mark. The family live in a small mud-walled house in the rice-growing area of Ahero, Kisumu county. It is rainy season and the earth road outside their house has turned muddy and waterlogged. Nearby, women work in the rice fields, bending over to reach the crops on the ground. Mark’s younger sister plays outside, peering around the corner of the house to watch the unusual activity.
Mark’s story is similar to Samora’s and they quickly form a bond. Mark left home after stealing his grandmother’s mobile phone, because he wanted to keep up with his friends. After his mother found out, he became afraid of his father’s reaction. He wrote a letter to his parents, took some money, and got a motorbike ride to Kisumu town. He lived on the streets of Kisumu, until he was found by Agape outreach workers. They contacted his mother and after a period of counselling and reconciliation, Mark returned home.
“It was very hard on the streets. There was a lot of drugs and violence,” Mark says. “I slept during the day and stayed awake at night. I was afraid that if I slept at night, other boys would attack me and steal my money. I’m happy to be back home and decided to change my behaviour. Now, I don’t do things just because my friends do. My father wasn’t angry with me and we’ve started a new relationship. I love my family and I don’t want to let them down.”
Mark’s parents were desperately worried when he ran away from home, and relieved when he was found. His mother Sarah says that they’ve learnt to talk more openly with Mark and listen to him. Turning to her son, she says: “We love you and we’re here for you. If anything is bothering you, just tell us and we will help. We want you to be happy at home.”
Reflecting on the experience, Samora sees many similarities between Mark’s story and his own, although the outcome was very different. “When I look at Mark, I have mixed feelings,” he says. “I feel a bit sad because I see all the things I missed out on growing up. But much more than that, I feel happy for Mark because now he has the opportunity to lead a normal life and follow his dreams.”