27 April 2017

Tell a Story Day


Gohizo’s real life story – as powerful as any work of fiction

Why are there so many famous stories about orphans? On “Tell A Story Day”, we asked our Writer and Story Gatherer, Isobel Eaton, to explain:

If you visit the London’s Foundling Museum and stop for tea in the café, you will see a striking list of fictional characters painted on the walls. Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, Becky Sharp, Batman and Harry Potter are all there and the connection? Every one of them is an orphan or a foundling or was fostered or adopted. The list is part of the poem, “Superman was a Foundling” by the writer Lemn Sissay. He grew up in care and wanted to highlight the gap between society’s admiration for these imaginary characters and its disregard for real children who are forced to grow up without the protection of a family.

But why are story tellers always so keen to cast children who have been separated from their parents as their central characters? I think the answer is clear. It’s because a story that begins with a child alone, is a story that will keep us reading to the end. There is no more compelling start than an abandoned baby. What other event in human experience offers such an immediate and genuine sense of jeopardy (the term may be a cliché but it’s still the key ingredient of any story worth the telling). Who is this child? Where are their parents?  How will they survive? Who will help them? Absolutely anything could happen.

Another reason that authors are so keen on orphans is that, in the world of fiction, especially children’s fiction, it’s a good idea to get rid of the grown-ups as quickly as you can. Neither writers nor readers want parents with all their sensible, solution-finding care and concern, putting an end to the fun before it’s even begun.

In the real world though, growing-up without a family to protect and guide you is anything but an exciting adventure. For the 8 million or more children confined to orphanages and similar institutions around the world today, it’s a harrowing ordeal. Orphanages do not protect children. They damage their development and threaten their life chances.  And in the real world, there are far fewer true orphans than many people think. The majority – an estimated 80% – of the children who are confined to orphanages are not orphans at all. They have been separated from their families because of poverty, disability or discrimination. Most have at least one living parent and families who could and would care for them if they had the support they need.

Hope and Homes for Children exists to help children, whatever their needs, leave institutions to live in safe and loving families. At the same time we help to develop services that enable  families to stay together and prevent children from entering institutions in the first place.  My job – and it’s a privilege – is to tell the real-life stories of the children we support.  I believe it’s the best way to show what’s wrong with orphanages and to encourage people to help us achieve our vision of a world in which children no longer suffer institutional care.

It’s true that many of the real life stories that we tell have all the elements of a dark fairy tale. They too concern children who have been forced to face the world alone, who must endure brutal institutions, neglect and cruelty before they find the love and protection of a family. Like their fictional counterparts, the children we support are all unique individuals and often  show extraordinary resilience and courage to overcome the challenges they face. There are real-life grown-up heroes in our stories too; the social workers in our country teams who work tirelessly to find the right, alternative family-based care for every child who leaves an institution and the foster parents who welcome many of these children into their homes. I If you read the story of Gihozo below, you will see what I mean.

That’s not to say that Hope and Homes for Children is in the business of fairy tale endings. The impact of institutional care is too profound for there to be quick, easy solutions and simple outcomes for the children we support.  We are not here to tell rose-tinted stories about orphans that end with a happy ever after. We are here to help children, whatever their needs, find families to love and protect them so that a new chapter in their lives can begin.

Gihozo’s Story:

Gihozo is four years old and she is the apple of her family’s eye. She lives in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, with her foster parents, Jane and James, who are both nurses, and her five teenage brothers and sisters.

One day, in October 2012, Jane heard a baby crying just outside her house. She sent her children to investigate and they discovered Gihozo, abandoned in some bushes.  A note left with the baby gave her date of birth. She was just five days old. Jane and James did not hesitate. They took Gihozo into their home and cared for her while they waited for the authorities to decide what to do.

In the few short days that she lived with them, the whole family fell in love with Gihozo. They were dismayed when they were told that they must take her to the city’s main orphanage and leave her there. They had no choice but to do as they were told. But Jane and her family could not bear to think of Gihozo, struggling to survive in that crowded, loveless institution and so they came up with a plan. Jane decided to volunteer as a helper at the orphanage. That way she would be able to look out for Gihozo and try to maintain their bond. And for over a year that’s exactly what she did.

Then in January 2014 Hope and Homes for Children began work to close the orphanage where Gihozo lived by finding families for all the children there. We tried to trace Gihozo’s birth family but without success. We knew about her connection with Jane’s family and so we went to visit them.  Jane was at work at the time but when she came home and heard that we had called, she says that she shouted for joy because this was just the opportunity she had been hoping for.

Our specialist social workers assessed Jane and James as suitable foster parents and gave them the training they needed to meet Gihozo’s needs. It was clear from the beginning that there was a strong attachment between both parents and the baby girl who had been abandoned at their gate. In July 2014, Gihozo left the orphanage to join her new family.

Today, Gihozo is a happy, playful little girl. She is very close to both her foster parents and doted on by her older brothers and sisters.  She is small for her age and still experiencing  some developmental delays as a result of her time in the orphanage. Jane and James have applied to officially adopt Gihozo. They are determined to make her a permanent part of their family and never allow her to be separated from them again.

Author: Isobel Eaton, Writer and Story Gatherer