25 August 2016

Part 2: A place to call home, people to call family

Stephen Ucembe is our Regional Advocacy Manager in East and Southern Africa. He’s a highly qualified social worker and has wide experience of helping to improve the lives of children without parental care.

Stephen works with Hope and Homes for Children’s partners in the region to change the attitudes, practices and policies that lead to children being confined to institutions and he advocates for an alternative model of care that allows children to grow up in families.

Stephen spent his own childhood in an orphanage with no family to care for him and he gave a moving account of this experience in the first part of his Guest Blog. Now, in the second part of his story, Stephen Ucembe, explains how he beat extraordinary odds to train as a social worker and dedicate his professional life to defending children’s rights.

A place to call home, people to call family.

Unsurprisingly, the story of how I came to overcome the challenges of my childhood and gain the education I needed to build a career as a professional social worker is a complicated one.

I was five years old when my mother was murdered and our family was torn apart. My younger sister, my older brother and I were separated from our other siblings and sent to live in an orphanage. My brother later fled the institution. My sister and I grew up there, feeling isolated and lost, with no one to give us the love and attention that we needed.

When I turned 18, like the others in my age group, I had to leave the institution and make my own way in the world – even though my childhood in the orphanage had left me completely unprepared for this challenge. In truth though, I was in my mid-twenties before I completely cut my ties with the institution where I had grown up. I know that sounds strange, given the bitter memories I have of that place, but it’s not uncommon. Like most children who grow up in orphanages, with no sense of belonging, that institution was the only home I knew.

From my earliest days there, I recognised that education was my only hope and I studied as hard as I could at school. I was a very quiet, withdrawn little boy. This was always interpreted as obedience by my teachers and helped me to stay out of trouble. Over the years, I watched as other young people were thrown out of the institution for behaving badly or performing poorly at school.

Unlike many of my peers, I did well in my final high school exams and so, even though I had to find my own place to live, the institution found a sponsor to pay for my college fees and I was able to continue my studies.

The years immediately after I left the institution were some of the hardest of my life. As well as studying, I had to work back at the orphanage, doing menial jobs to pay my rent and buy food. I struggled with stress and developed stomach ulcers. One evening after college, I was in so much pain that a classmate had to help me on to the bus home. Once I made it back to my tiny room, I remember sitting alone and thinking that I had no one – there or anywhere else- who I could ask for help. I looked at the dusty wall where my institution employee badge dangled, reading “groundsman”. The institution where I had grown up was not my home, just a place where I happened to work. I remember thinking, “If I am to die tonight, it will be a lonely death”. Over the next few years, there were many tearful nights and lonely days, made harder by the task of pretending to be normal like anyone else.

At school, I had always loved art and used to think that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up but, over time, my ambitions changed. As I thought about my own experiences and watched the way that other children were mistreated in the institution, I knew there must be a better way to care for children like us – children who, for whatever reason, had been separated from their families. As I came towards the end of my school career, I began to investigate the options and decided to take a degree in social work.

It took three and half years to complete the course but it felt like a decade. I struggled, both emotionally and practically, to find the means to complete my studies. Throughout that time, I continued working at the institution to make ends meet, first as a groundsman, then in the kitchens, then as a social work assistant and finally as a social worker; all in the institution where I had grown up.

I did my best for the children there but there was little scope for me to do what I knew needed to be done; to help children return to their biological families or to find loving foster families to care for them.

At this point, I was lucky enough to make a good friend. He was a tall young man, the same age as me, called Aart Van Sloten. He had come from the Netherlands to work as a volunteer, helping with construction projects within the local institutions. I was asked to show him around. As I took him around the area, we got to know each other well. Overtime, Aart became like a brother to me – far closer than my biological siblings who, of course, I hardly knew. And incredibly, it turned out that Aart’s mother, Bep, was a professional social worker and an international child protection expert. Over time, I became assimilated into Aaart’s family and felt that sense of belonging that I had never had before. Aart and his family were to become a pillar in my life

My dissatisfaction with my role as a social worker at the institution continued to grow and I was desperate to explore new opportunities and gain my independence. I began to apply for other jobs and eventually, in 2012 at the age of 29, I was recruited by a refugee humanitarian agency to work with separated and unaccompanied children without parental care. At the same time, Aart’s family in the Netherlands helped me start my Masters in Child Development. I attended evening studies after work but it was hard going. I still felt inadequate and wanted to advance in my studies so, after two years with the humanitarian agency, in 2014, I won a scholarship to study for a further Masters in Social Policy for Development in the Netherlands. The scholarship covered almost 70 % per cent of my tuition fees and Aart’s family agreed to chip in with the rest. I took this opportunity without hesitation.

Throughout my studies and my training, my passion had been to find the best way to support vulnerable children within their families and their communities. This is no easy task in Africa where poverty is pervasive and where child protection structures and systems are wanting but I had seen enough examples of good practice on the ground to convince me that it is was possible.

Hope and Homes for Children contacted me in November, 2015. They had seen my CV and wanted to interview me for the role of Regional Advocacy Manager for East and Southern Africa. I arranged to speak to the team in Rwanda via Skype and ten days later, they let me know that I had got the job.

Working for Hope and Homes for Children gives me the chance to use my personal story, my professional experience and my academic qualifications to influence the policies and practices that lead to children being placed in institutions. I am passionate about helping the organisation to fulfil its mission, to be the catalyst for the eradication of the institutional care of children, worldwide.

But despite the satisfaction I get from my work, I still feel an enormous sense of sadness when I think about the other children who grew up in the institution with me. There were 20 of us who left at the same time but not one of the others has been able to make a meaningful life for themselves in the way that I have managed to do.

Children who grow up in institutions are seldom heard or seen. Young people who leave institutional care, with none of skills, emotional security, support or encouragement they need to negotiate the adult world, are even more invisible.

My job, with Hope and Homes for Children, is to make sure that children who suffer – and have suffered – institutional care are not forgotten and get the love and support they need to lead fulfilling lives.

More from Stephen Ucembe:

‘Kenya needs to look after its children better’ Daily Nation, Kenya

‘Bleak future for orphaned children under the care of child care centres’ The Standard, Kenya

‘Why children’s homes are a tragedy’ The Star, Kenya