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Joining Forces to Restore the Lives of Vulnerable Children

12 January 2017 - The lives of some 100 vulnerable children in Ethiopia took a turn in 2016 that they could not have imagined only a year ago. They went from lives of destitution and fear, sleeping and toiling on the streets - or engaging in petty crime- to that of finding a shelter, a safe place to learn and above all, hope in the future.

The partnership of UNODC with Salesians of Don Bosco - VIS , which kicked off in December 2015 with the aim of Rehabilitating and reintegrating children at risk and in conflict with the law, made this change happen: It gave a second chance to both boys released from detention and destitute street kids at risk of engaging with criminal activities and in conflict with the law.

The project's first year of implementation in Addis Ababa and in the provincial towns of Zway and Gambella produced positive results. It provided the boys with with full-time care, psychosocial support, access to education as well as family and social reintegration.

Concretely, the boys had the opportunity to attend formal school or choose skills training among a variety of fields. They also received life skills training to mitigate the effects of the harmful conditions in which they lived. Through these 'soft skills,' the boys got to know themselves, manage and cope with their anger and acquire a sense of responsibility for all their actions.

Neglected children

Many of these homeless kids experienced abandonment at an early age. Cases in point are Amanuel, 16, and Tamiru, 15, who arrived at the Bosco Children rehabilitation centre in Addis Ababa a year ago.

Amanuel was only two years-old when his mother, a sex worker in the capital city, sold him to a man who allegedly ran a charitable home and had promised to take care of him and send him to school. Amanuel grew up with this man until the man got sick and left for Europe. At that point, Amanuel, who was then only 13, saw no way out but to try to survive on the streets of Addis Ababa.

Tamiru tells a similar story, one that echoes that of many street children. Following the passing of his father when he was only 8, Tamiru's mother remarried and moved to another region, leaving him with his uncle. Soon, his aunt started being abusive towards him and his brother, leaving them no other option than the street.

Struggling for Survival

This is when the downward spiral of Amanuel and Tamiru started. They became homeless, quit school and strived to eat leftovers. The nights were cold and the heavy rains in the winter season wreaked havoc on their health and morale.While Tamiru toiled carrying water, charcoal and shining shoes in Gojam (Amhara region) followed by lugging the heavy bags of bus passengers in the capital city, Amanuel and his street peers were forced to steal money and mobile telephones in Addis Ababa. "We couldn't say no or escape - he argues; if we did that, the guys would catch us and beat us." The "hardest thing" - he says - was "being chased and beaten after midnight, and running out of glue to help us cope with the cold and the hunger"

Amanuel's two year ordeal on the streets ended when a man accused him of stealing his phone. He would spend six months at the Remand and Rehabilitation Centre, from where he eventually be released due to lack of evidence. He says he "hated" the centre because he was "locked," and unlike other boys, he did not have parents who came to see him. Before his release, however, and thanks to an agreement between the remand centre and Bosco Children, Amanuel was introduced to the salesians' work to help kids like himself.

For Tamiru, moving away from Gojam to Addis Ababa only showed him how much harsher street life in the capital was. One night, while sleeping rough by the Merkato bus station, he was beaten by a group who were determined to steal the very little money he had. Tamiru also started sniffing glue as he "could not take the cold any longer." Seeing his exhaustion, an older boy who used to give him bread encouraged Tamiru to seek help from the Don Bosco Children's home, and he did so so during one of Don Bosco Children's nightly searches for street children in need of assistance in January 2016.

Shelter and Hope

Both Amanuel and Tamiru felt relieved to receive assistance and the free services Don Bosco Children has been providing to street boys of ages 13 to 16 since 2004, including: meals, shower, clothing, and counselling and basic education in the centre during the day. They were eager to move on to the second stage and join Don Bosco Children's boarding programme, which included a warm place to sleep and meant leaving street life definitely behind.

The kids next went through an orientation period during which they took literacy classes and skills training. They also had the chance to get a flavour of each training course for five weeks, helping them to discover their own personal interests and talents. The range of courses included automotive, metal work, woodwork, bamboo, leather goods and food preparation.

With that background, in September, the kids were ready to pick a specific vocational training to focus on for the next 8 months. Amanuel choose metal work, and Timiru, opted for leather goods, which he combined with grade 4 education classes. Other kids chose to go to formal schooling outside the centre, as Don Bosco likewise supports those who pursue academic studies at secondary school and university, as well as those who prefer to be reunited with their family first and pursue their education or training in their home region.

Shaping New Lives

"First, we work on the children's personalities," says Mr.Gizaw Tefera, a social worker with Don Bosco Children. "We encourage them to get rid of feelings of guilt and modify their behaviour if necessary. Then they start the courses, and little by little they start thinking about their future, about how to make a living and help their families." Adding that: "Those with no family or no contact with them still want to be reintegrated into society."

"I'm very happy to be here. Since I arrived, I started thinking about my future," recognizes Amanuel. "The counsellors at Don Bosco helped me change my attitude for the better and I made friends".

"Before I was not able to read," Tamiru adds. "Now that I am able to, the world has changed for me. I am a new person."

Around 25 boys are set to finish their training courses in June. Next, they will seek employment and a place to live. During this five-month transition, they will continue to be economically supported by the centre until they are able to stand on their own feet.

"The most important thing is that the kids' mentality has changed," sums up Mr. Tefera. "They are now eager to improve and change their lives whatever their background". And though the introductory phase of the programme also has drop-outs, the boys who continue are resolved to stop their path of self-destruction and turn around their lives. They are spurred by former boarders who take part in weekly counselling/group sessions, providing an inspiration to/from which to follow suit.

That is why, whenDon Bosco Children's doors open on Sunday for the day, Tamiru and his friends go out to the streets looking for other street children whom they encourage to follow in their footsteps.

The project is supported by the Governments of Netherlands and Sweden


Second image, "Light and shadow", by Hernan Pinera, is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0