What will the future hold for Elijah?
At first, I didn’t even see Elijah. The dormitory was dark in comparison to the sunny yard outside. But as my eyes adjusted, I saw him there in the very furthest corner of the room; a tiny little boy, sitting completely still and silent, at the foot of one of the rows of bunk beds. Then I realised he was sitting on a potty.
Who knows how long he’d been there, quietly waiting for someone to remember him and help him?
The orphanage where Elijah lives is in the middle of one of the largest slums in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. 85 other children live there, in a run down three-story building behind high metal gates. Elijah is not the youngest. There are babies here too. Officially the oldest children are 18 years old but, because they have absolutely nowhere else to go, some stay well into their 20s.
There are many more boys than girls and very few staff, especially at night, to make sure the younger children are safe. Elijah has been here since he was a day old. He was abandoned at birth and no one knows, or has tried, to discover, if he has any relatives who might be able to care for him.
He was brought to the orphanage because here, as in so many places, shutting vulnerable children away in institutions is still seen as the best way to keep them safe. But orphanages do not protect children, they harm them. Children need so much more than food and shelter to feel safe, to learn, to grow and to thrive. They need love and the undivided attention of people who care for them above all others.
They need families. And this is particularly true and especially urgent in the case of the youngest children who desperately need the close attachment to a parent figure in order to learn and develop properly in those first three critical years of life. Elijah is three now. He has lost those precious years. He can never get them back.
What this will mean for him in the future is clear to see in the faces of the older boys who hang around on the iron staircases of the orphanage. Children who grow up in orphanages instead of families often struggle to cope in the world outside when they are officially designated as adults and turned out onto the streets to fend for themselves. With no one to protect or guide them, they are far, far more likely than children raised in families to become homeless, to spend time in prison, to suffer from mental illness or even commit suicide. There is a hopeless look in the eyes of these older teenagers and young adults that tells me they already know this.
But what about Elijah? For him, it doesn’t have to be this way.
There is an alternative. The work of Hope and Homes for Children in another East African country, Rwanda, shows this. There, we have been working closely with the government to shut the country’s institutions by establishing safe and loving, family-based alternative care for children. Almost 85% of Rwanda’s orphanages have now closed. In most cases, children have returned to live with their biological families and those families have been given the support they need to stay together.
Where that is not possible or appropriate, foster or adoptive parents have been trained and assessed to welcome children into their homes. Young adults have received the support and guidance they need to begin to build meaningful lives for themselves, beyond the institutions. And there are encouraging signs that the success of this approach in Rwanda is beginning to have an effect on other countries.
Earlier this year, senior child protection officials from Kenya visited our work in Rwanda and were inspired by what they saw. They have promised to reform child protection in Kenya and move way from a system that relies on institutions to a system that puts families at the heart of keeping children safe and making sure that they have the love they need to flourish.
The Kenyan government with support from UNICEF has begun a pilot project to transform care in one county and we are now supporting this work, making sure that the deinstitutionalisation, which is within the scope of our support, takes place in a way that is safe and sustainable for children.
Back at the orphanage in Nairobi, eventually someone remembers Elijah, sitting alone in the corner of that dark bedroom. He has sat there so quietly for so long because he learned a long time ago that no one will come if he cries.
He is a bright, curious little boy and desperate for even the fleeting attention he gets from occasional visitors like us. But when we are gone, once he has been fed along with all the other children, washed along with all the other children and sent to bed, he’ll climb onto the dirty mattress at the bottom of the iron bunk bed he shares with the other toddlers and fall asleep. No bed of his own, no favourite toy, no story, no kiss goodnight.
Every child, wherever they live, whatever their needs, deserves a family to love and protect them. A better future is possible for Elijah and the 8 million other children confined to orphanages around the world. With your support we can make that possibility a reality.
By Isobel Eaton, Writer and Story Gatherer