My journey from orphanage survivor to new dad
Becoming a parent is a big decision for anyone, but for Oggi Tomic, it was a step he feared he would never take. He spent much of his own childhood in the largest institution in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina. During the war that tore his country apart in the mid-1990s, Oggi and his friends were left to fend for themselves, sheltering in the shelled-out ruins of the building and scavenging for food.
It was seeing their plight first-hand that motivated our founders, Mark and Caroline Cook, to set up Hope and Homes for Children in 1994. With their support and encouragement, Oggi eventually came to the UK to study and build a career as documentary maker. Early last year, he became a dad for the first time. Here he describes how growing up without a family has overshadowed that experience.
Ivani was born on my birthday. She’s 14 months old now and she’s a really active, energetic little girl. Having her, having my own family, is a blessing but the truth is I’ve been scared for almost 30 years of my life about having a child of my own. I grew up seeing babies being abandoned in cardboard boxes on the steps of the orphanage in hot, cold or rainy weather. We would bring them in and then they were basically given up to the system. Other children were there because their parents had been killed in the war, or because their families couldn’t care for them without extra support. It’s taken a long time for me to even start to overcome all of this and be ready to start a family of my own.
I was always scared because I didn’t want my child to ever grow up in a situation where she didn’t have a mum or dad because we were struggling to look after her. But it wasn’t just that. Seeing what it means for children to live without families, across four different orphanages, day in and day out, coming going, some being adopted, others being transferred between orphanages, it was a hell of a childhood and it catches up with you. Becoming a father has been very stressful in terms of this fear I have about caring for my daughter. If you have your mum and dad around when you’re growing up, if then you have a child of your own, you have that support of your parents, your wider family. I’ve got nothing. What have I got? Who have I got to turn to, to ask why has our daughter turned red or pink or whatever? It’s the fear of not knowing what to do. I think the biggest challenge really is growing up without knowing what love is, and how do you learn what love is? You learn what love is by growing up in a loving family—and an orphanage is not that. It’s just a conveyor belt that processes you through the system.
I grew up seeing babies being abandoned in cardboard boxes on the steps of the orphanage
I don’t blame the staff who worked there. You can’t have a nurse, or an educator or a carer or whatever you want to call them, give you that love. They just make sure that you have three meals a day, you have some clothes to wear and you go to school. That’s it. What you do the rest of the time is not their problem. So all these things come through your head but you don’t realise it until a certain point in your life, like when you want to become a father. It is hard because you have seen a lot of abandonment in life and it just scars you. It is like having a really bad allergic reaction to something like an egg. You don’t want to go near it again.
I know this sounds selfish, but I find it very hard when Ivani cries. Everything else I’m fine with, but when she cries I find it really tough to manage. Purely because in an orphanage we hardly ever heard babies cry, because they learn no one will come so they just stay silent. So even now, when Ivani cries I ask my wife, “Why is she crying? What’s wrong?” My wife just says, “Oh it’s OK, it’s just this or that,” she understands but I don’t understand it and I worry that something’s really wrong. But Ivani is also teaching me what love is. That’s something that’s hard for a man of 35 to say but that is quite frankly what she is teaching me: what love is.
It is hard because you have seen a lot of abandonment in life and it just scars you.
Sometimes, in the evening, my wife and I will look at a picture of her and we’ll say, “Shall we wake her up to come and play with us?” because she’s so lovely! And then of course we say no because of all the effort we’ve put in to getting her to sleep. But she is just a pure burst of joy. She’s always smiling, she’s running, she’s not even walking. It’s not easy. I have had to almost teach myself how to give love to our little daughter. She’s too little for me to say “Sorry, I grew up in an orphanage, I am learning this like you are learning this.” I am learning to be patient and to be the best dad that I can be as much as she’s learning to walk and talk and all the things kids do, but above all we just love her to bits. She’s just the most amazing little girl. You can’t find the words to describe how happy she makes us.
This happiness I’m experiencing, having my own family, every child deserves to have one day but when orphanages are still open and operating, children will continue to go through what I went through and worse, by being too scared to have a child of their own.
Oggi Tomic is an award-winning film maker. Today he is based in the UK but he was born in Bosnia & Herzegovina, abandoned at birth and grew up in a series of orphanages. His documentary Finding Family tells the moving story of his journey back to Bosnia for an extraordinary family reunion. The film won the BAFTA Scotland award for Best Factual and Best New Work in 2013.
“Becoming a father, it makes me so furious to know that orphanages still exist in 2021. Lots of charities came to the orphanage and promised us help with adoption and re-homing and being reunited with your own parents. None of them did that. But Hope and Homes for Children did. They helped me become the person I am today by believing in me.”
Make love your legacy by giving children today, and for generations to come, the chance to grow up in caring families.