Every morning neighborhood girls walked briskly to school full of joy and great hope for a bright future. Half way between the school and their neighborhood stood a tree-fenced park that was used as recreational and rest place for district families and passers-by.
Every time she passed by the park side, with her sisters and other girls, she would lag behind to watch a group of young boys who appeared to be taking the trees’ lush shade as refuge and sleeping place. It was a wonder to her why they were not going to school! Once she dared ask them, but all she could get for an answer was a boy’s statement that “It is just like this for us!”; which meant he knew of no apparent reason for not going to school.
One day she went to the local market with her father and saw a bunch of school-age boys and girls sleeping on bare ground around the cinema. It was an appalling sight for her. She asked her father disapprovingly: “Why do they sleep on the street like that, daddy?” Her father replied that they were either orphaned or abandoned children. She was deeply touched and wept a lot for the children’s sake in spite of her young age. She could not absorb the fact that children at such an early age would be without a home or family to look after them. All the time she spent at the local market, she did nothing but kept watching those little children roaming around.
A little distance from where the little ones were gathering, she caught sight of a thin little boy of no more than five years of age sitting on the ground with his back to the cinema wall. When she approached him, she noticed a thick trace of tears on his cheeks. She handed him a piece of bread, which he snatched from her hand and devoured quickly. She went up to her father and asked him to buy a meal for the poor child, which he generously did.
She continued watching those poor young children wandering around aimlessly. They were very dusty and wear ragged dirty pieces of cloth. Tears would no longer diffuse her feelings for them. But internally she vowed a pledge that “when she is old enough, she would build a large home and school to accommodate all orphaned and abandoned children”. Gradually, that pledge turned into a dream growing up with her over the years.
She successfully completed her secondary education and got admitted into college. Upon graduation, she got a decent job as banker, and immediately thereafter she got married. She was leading a successful professional and family life, but deep inside her the pledge which she had vowed at very early age kept popping up every time she sighted a poor homeless child, and more particularly so, at bedtime during winter and rainy seasons.
As time passed by, housing expenses downtown the big city became too much for her, with all life necessities one had to provide for. So, she moved with her family to live in the outskirts of the big city at a stone’s throw from shanty dwellings of some migrant citizens whose areas had been plighted by war and drought. There, everyday, she met with the same little miserable faces and expectant looks that incessantly reminded her of her early-childhood pledge.
One morning, the subject of our tale, ‘’Ms. Awatif Ibrahim Mohammed’, got up early with a final decision that desk job was not her thing.
Actually, all through her time on job, she never felt any sense of belonging within the confines of an air-conditioned office. When she reached office that morning, she immediately submitted her resignation, to proceed along the difficult journey towards the realization of her pledge and life-long dream.
For a start, Ms. Awatif purchased a piece of land within the same vicinity and started constructing what was meant to act as refuge and learning place for homeless and orphaned children. Even before construction works are complete, Ms. Awatif started registering homeless and abandoned children in the vicinity, where she found out that the number of homeless and abandoned children who were in actual need for help within the neighborhood exceeded 461 children in total.
Ms. Awatif did not have sufficient funds at the time, but she did have the will and insistence to launch, from the sitting room of her house, the first childcare community center in the neighborhood. That was in 1998, at No. 62 District of Karrari Locality.
Ms. Awatif said that she started by identifying and classifying the status of children who are in need of care. During the initial stage a total 86 students were placed in first elementary level. They were admitted for alternative curriculum learning. Instructors were all volunteer neighbors and friends of her. Even her daughter ‘Maha’ took part as volunteer instructor. When the number of students increased, they had to work on dual shifts, still without official permit from the authorities, as related by Ms. Awatif.
Ms. Awatif further stated: “After a while we were visited by Dr. Najwan Abdulhameed, the then secretary general of Childcare Council of Khartoum State. Dr. Najwan provided support to us and helped to include our center in the child-friendly centers sponsored by the Ministry. That was a great step for us. We started by trying to numerate and accommodate homeless and orphaned street children in coordination with tribal chiefs within the district. Local community members showed great interest in the scheme and many families offered to provide refuge for homeless and orphaned children. At the beginning we were keen that hosting families were of the same tribe as hosted children. Many orphaned and homeless children were reunited with their original families after locating them in coordination with childcare councils in respective states. Other homeless children were accommodated in government refuge centers at Omdurman, Soba and Jebel Aulia.”
Ms. Awatif reiterated that most children showed great interest to learn. Many of them proceeded further to join regular academic education up to university level. Those who showed interest to acquire technical skills were sent to vocational training centers to graduate as vehicle mechanics and electricians. They still keep in contact with Ms. Awatif nicknaming her “Mamma Awatif”.
Ms. Awatif stated that their work has expanded further where she now runs two centers: one at District 57 and another at Al-Fath City, where most dwellers of District 62 moved after the district demarking scheme. Both centers expanded upon the original center of District 62.
This successful experience led to the emergence of similar initiatives at local community level within other areas at the outskirts of the city, where there are many displaced people. Displacement usually occurs for many reasons such as war, natural disasters or poverty, but the result is always the same: families disintegrate and people are deprived of their means of living. Therefore, people migrate from their affected areas to settle at the outskirts of big cities, especially the capital Khartoum, in shanty dwellings that lack basic necessities of life.
Ms. Fatima Bashir Ahmed, a volunteer who had once worked with Awatif, proceeded on her own to open a childcare center at District 61 in 2000. Ms. Fatima’s center provides learning opportunities for orphaned children and children of needy and low-income families. She told Sudanow reporter that the learners in her center “have distinguished themselves as excellent learners and many of them are now university students at various levels and specializations”.
Ms. Fatima Bashir stated that they are now operating from the Women’s Development Center of District 61. Her center has not received any subsidies since 2007; yet still it has continued to provide learning opportunities to deprived and poor children. Ms. Fatima expressed high appreciation for local community support in providing the premises and volunteer instructors as well as family sponsorship and refuge to homeless and orphaned children. Ms. Fatima says that this should come as no surprise to anybody since generosity and philanthropy are deep-rooted values of the Sudanese people. She further added that, to her, nothing compared the happy and joyful expression on a small kid’s countenance upon receiving a distinguished final result report.
In an effort to counter the problem, the government authorities of Sudan have launched a child protection initiative through child-friendly centers for orphaned and homeless children in coordination and cooperation with the UNICEF, Swedish and British childhood organizations, and the Arab Institute for Urban Development.
Dr. Najwan Abdulhameed, ex-secretary general of Childcare Council at Khartoum State and present chairperson of “All Together” organization, which operates in child protection field, confirmed that government childcare endeavors started officially in 1987 when Sudan was plagued with a number of natural disasters including consecutive waves of drought, desertification and floods. But community volunteer efforts, she added, has been well active ever since 1939.
Dr. Najwan told Sudanow that during her office term as secretary general, the number of child beneficiaries of child-friendly centers amounted to 3937 children. The services provided through these centers include alternative learning and cultural awareness programs where 2595 children were enlisted as beneficiaries, and vocational training for around 640 children. Around 230 children were reunited with their families, and 144 families received economic subsidies. Economic subsidies include provision of various means of self-support earning to create productive community members out of target beneficiaries. There were also public awareness campaigns and debate seminars held on regular basis.
Dr. Najwan praised the community positive participation and interaction with the child-friendly centers. She highlighted the Child Protection Council’s efforts to train instructors before joining on how to deal with children. Instructors also receive training on how to implement the curriculum in a scientific way and how to interact and communicate with families and guardians of enlisted children. This method has added value to the child-friendly centers’ work, and helped greatly in establishing and enhancing a positive picture of these centers within the targeted communities, especially that most instructors are basically interested volunteers from amongst those communities, said Ms. Najwan.
Ms. Najwan further added that economic and family problems represent the main challenge that hinders children’s learning continuity and negatively affects their psychic and social development. Also the instructors receive no incentive payment and therefore their full-time work in the centers provides no future job security taking into account the high rise in living expenses.
It is noteworthy that Ms. Najwan and other specialists and experts in the field have reiterated the need to further extend this model of child-friendly centers to other vulnerable parts of Sudan in order to create badly-needed learning opportunities for homeless and orphaned children at those regions. More vocational training opportunities should also be allocated to children of both sexes above 14 years of age to transfer them into productive citizens.
Those experts also stressed the need to engage local communities on a wider scale, and provide government support to hosting families of orphaned children as well as train police and law enforcement personnel on how to deal with homeless and orphaned children, while at the same time promote the values of friendship and peaceful coexistence among these segments of children through the launching of cultural programs and awareness campaigns.
There is no doubt that the efforts exerted on individual level through personal initiatives by people such as Awatif and Fatima, as well as government efforts, international organizations’ support and local community cooperation and interaction are all valuable and effective, but more is needed to help the homeless, orphaned and abandoned children to become good productive citizens instead of going astray.
E N D