Nothing Compares to Family Life: Sylvia’s Story

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The light is falling at the end of the day as we take our seats in the front room of a small house in a village in the North East of Rwanda. We have come to hear Rhinah tell the story of how she first met her foster daughter, Sylvia,

It doesn’t matter that we don’t speak a word of Rhinah’s own language, Kinyarwanda because, as she tells her story, Rhinah is on her feet, acting out the full drama of that moment.

It happened at around the same time of day as our visit – at dusk. Rhinah had gone into the kitchen to wash up after dinner. As she cleared up the dishes, she heard a noise from the backyard. Peering out into the semi-darkness from the kitchen window, she could just make out a small bundle, lying on the ground at the edge of her property.She heard another cry and ran outside to investigate.When she unwrapped the bundle she discovered a tiny baby girl; Sylvia, then just a few days old. She gathered up the baby and brought her inside.

For the next three weeks, Rhinah did all she could to care for Sylvia while the authorities tried to find her mother. But when their investigations failed, Rhinah was told she had to take Sylvia to the local orphanage. That’s where Sylvia lived for the next six and a half years – with no one to love or protect her. During that time, Rhinah visited when she could and tried her best to maintain her bond with the baby girl that she had rescued.

Sylvia hated life in the institution and struggled to survive with no individual care and attention.  As she grew older and could speak for herself, she begged to be allowed to go home with Rhinah but this was not allowed.

Then, in 2012, the Rwandan government agreed to begin the process of replacing all its orphanages with family-based care for children. Working with the local authorities, Hope and Homes for Children began work to close the orphanage where Sylvia lived. Our specialist team started by trying to find Sylvia’s biological family but without success. When Rhinah heard what was happening, she jumped at the chance to be reunited with Sylvia and asked if she could become her foster mother. “She is my own child” she declared. “I rescued her from the coldness of the night after she was abandoned.”

Once our team in Rwanda had assessed and trained Rhinah and her family and prepared Sylvia to cope with the move, she left the orphanage to begin a new life with Rhinah and her family.

When we asked Sylvia about life in a family compared to life in an orphanage, this is what she told us. “In the orphanage we all had to eat the same thing but in the family, they think about what each person likes. We were not allowed to play with other children after school but now I can. We were not allowed to ask for the things we needed but now my parents ask me what I need. To me, nothing compares to family life. ”

Nearly three years on, Rhinah says that Sylvia is an affectionate, sociable little girl who has settled into the family very well. She has learnt to care for herself and to help with household chores and other everyday activities – the normal things that children learn, growing up in a family, that they don’t have the chance to learn, growing up in an orphanage. She enjoys school and the chance to make her own friends in the neighbourhood is important to her.

Now Rhinah has applied to adopt Sylvia so that they can never be separated again. Hope and Homes for Children in Rwanda is helping with the adoption process and will continue to monitor and support the family in the future.

In December 2016, the orphanage where Sylvia lived was closed for good – one of 11 institutions targeted for closure as part of a three-year programme in East and Southern Africa, funded by UK Aid (2015-2018) that has so far seen 542 children and young adults leave orphanages to live in families. 

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