During Anti-Slavery Week 2023, we launched the #EndOrphanageTourism campaign. Vulnerable children aren’t tourist attractions. Orphanages can traffic children into slavery. We’re encouraging travellers to say NO to visiting orphanages on holiday and support families and communities instead.
Our patron Natalie Pinkham and ambassador Rukhiya Budden spoke to presenter Babs Michel on BBC Three Counties Radio this October, about our orphanage tourism campaign. Listen now, or read the transcript below:
Babs Michel (BM): I spoke to Natalie Pinkham earlier, and if you’re going on holiday for half term, and you’re going abroad, have a listen to this and bear it in mind.
Now, I’ve got a question for you: have you ever heard of “orphanage tourism”?
It’s where well-meaning people like us, go to visit orphanages and maybe schools and things like that, when you’re on holiday, as part of some sort of package or day trip or excursion. And it’s where you’re being told one thing, but actually the reality is that it isn’t all that it seems. Somebody that knows all about this is Sky Sports F1 presenter Natalie Pinkham – she volunteered in a Romanian orphanage doing during her university gap year, and now is a global ambassador for Hope and Homes for Children. She’s from our patch because she’s a Northampton girl! Hello Natalie!
Natalie Pinkham (NP): Hello, hi!
BM: How lovely that you’re here, thank you so much. And also Rukhiya Budden is joining me – hello Rukhiya!
Rukhiya Budden (RB): Hello
BM: Now, you live in Buckinghamshire, you’re a child psychotherapist, and you live there with your husband and your children. I’m gonna come to you after we’ve just had a quick chat with Natalie.
Natalie I have done this, and I already I feel like I could have made better choices… but I wasn’t aware when I went to Morocco a few years ago, I did go to an orphanage and we were encouraged to buy pens and pencils and take things in with us. So what is it that you’re trying to do, as the global ambassador for Hope and Homes for Children?
NP: Well, thanks so much for your time today, and yes, like you, I made a similar mistake. And people may be shouting at their listening devices, and go, “well why is this a mistake?!” I went there with a with a full heart and compassion and well-meaning, good intentions, then why is it so bad? Well the reason is, is that it’s potentially propping up a corrupt and exploitative system.
Back in 2000, I went out as a Nottingham university student to Romania, and what I discovered working over there was that actually, many of these children were profoundly neglected. And the big thing on a personal level for me, was that when the time came when I had to leave, I realised I was abandoning these children all over again. So if you take my one example, and amplify it by the hundreds and potentially thousands of similar volunteers, imagine the trauma that has; the impact on the child. They come in, they love, they think they satisfy their own curiosity – make themselves feel better in the moment – and then leave again. Because that’s exactly what happened to me. And I left – it bothered me; I felt shame and guilt for it, and many years later I went back to try and find particularly one little girl called Mirela. I went and I took a cameraman, who’s also producer director – just the two of us went back and found Mirela and we’ve discovered she’s been basically tied to a radiator ever since, as a means of control. Her life skills had completely diminished, so they’ve actually gone backwards. This bubbly toddler, full of hope, was now 12 or 13 and also really just struggling. Her hands were clawed, she’s lost the ability to speak, and what we realised is that level of neglect, that level of cortisol production was overwhelming for her in that moment.
I then was lucky enough to meet Hope and Homes for Children, and I said “but what should I have done?”. This is what a lot of people don’t realise – that actually orphanages are the worst place for a child to grow up in. Every child deserves the love and support and nourishment of a family, whatever form that takes. And we’re not idealists! We know it can’t necessarily be the perfect family setup. It may be distant relatives, aunts, uncles, grandparents, who just need additional support.
Of the 5.4 million children confined to orphanages around the world, 80% of them aren’t orphans and they do have living family relatives. And what’s happening is a lot of orphanages are trafficking children that have been separated from vulnerable parents, and that are basically being used as commodities. So well-meaning people like you and I are going in, spending our money and propping up systems which permanently damage these children. What we’re trying to say today is don’t go, don’t be tempted to satisfy your own curiosity, to make yourself feel good. Do what’s right for the kids and help Hope and Homes for Children close these orphanages forever, and get kids back into some kind of family support network. And we know that this helps everyone – these are the foundations these the building block for great societies. If you can have strong families supported by governments and companies, churches and charities like Hope and Homes for Children, it doesn’t it doesn’t have to be about supporting and and also the system as such
BM: Can I bring Rukhiya in here? Rukhiya, you are an orphanage survivor aren’t you from Kenya. What happened to you?
RB: Well I think naturally had some duck really well how damaging orphanages can be to children. For me, growing up in that orphanage in Nairobi was like a constant storm. The surroundings were horrific; the lack of personal belongings; the absence of a loving family… It was just unforgiving – an unforgiving environment.
I saw and witnessed emotional, mental and physical abuse within the orphanage. And when visitors came to the orphanage I felt in the beginning, for me I was very excited. I was running to them – a glimmer of hope, to be taken away to be loved. And we would clear the orphanage to prepare it for the visitors, and put on our best smiles and longing for that connection and a kind word from them, but the thing is, the dream of a new home didn’t happen.
BM: Oh gosh, how awful!
RB: Yes. What would happen is the visitors would come, they would feel really good about themselves, and they would leave.
Presenter: And of course they were people like me – they meant well.
RB: Absolutely. And I think this is why we’re doing it. Because we know that people are well-meaning, and want to make a difference, and they want to have a sense of meaning and purpose. But what’s so hurtful is that they don’t know that they’re causing damage to children. They’re causing a lot of heartbreak. Because for me, I was I was left feeling heartbroken. And I started to internalise it like, “Oh my gosh, maybe I’ve done something bad? Maybe they don’t want me because I’m not good enough?”
Living in fear and hoping that they would come back, because some of them promised that they were going to come back. Because they could see that we were devastated.
BM: And you were just a child, being used as a pawn really for this kind of money making.
RB: And I think, you know, when you’re a child, you don’t know what’s going on. You can’t make sense of it; that the truth in your heart is that you’re unloveable, you’re unwanted, you’re not good enough. And now today, as a child psychotherapist I’m working with children in this country in schools. In this country I’m vetted! I have to go through DBS checking, I have to have safeguarding training, I have ethical training, and I can’t believe that we are allowing people to go to institutions where children are vulnerable. People who have not been vetted. I can’t see how we would allow that in this country.
Imagine you were going to a boarding school then calling in to say, you know, “Can I just pop in to just have a look round, take photos of the children?”!
And this is causing so many issues for children who live in in these institutions. For me I ended up hiding; I didn’t want to see the visitors anymore yeah because I knew that I was gonna feel really upset and it just kind of left me feeling even more hurt, and later on in life obviously developed avoidant attachment style behaviour I developed anorexia. I punished myself not to feel the pain of that cumulative trauma of being abandoned. And I think you’re right in the sense of well-meaning people who want to make a difference. We can make a difference. There is a way out you know people can do something, and this is why we’re doing this today, to urge people to think before they visit an orphanage abroad.
BM: Can I just ask Natalie – if people then still want to help what should we do if we’re going on holiday? Because there are people there will be people going and booking up for winter sun and this these opportunities will come up. So we’re saying don’t do the orphanage thing, but if you want to help out and support how’s the best way to do that?
NP: It’s really interesting – it’s a question that I asked at the time as well, because we want to educate ourselves on this we want to understand what’s going on in the wider world. Look read up about it, go onto our website hopeandhomes.org and there’s a quiz on there that dispels a lot of myths and sort of unpacks the whole idea of tourism. And then come on board with us – raise money, help us, help the children, because really what we understand from talking to these kids is that all they want is a family. It sounds like a basic obvious thing to say, but I’ve seen it in terms of Mirela’s development – and thank God Rukhiya was able to get out and has now blossomed in this country, and got a lovely husband and kids of her own, and she’s been able to shower them with the love that she wasn’t lucky enough to have. But we can intervene early enough, and we can make a difference to these children, but we have to do it in the right way. And we have to support those who are on the ground to bring them into their family unit in a positive, structured way, where they’re going to be safe and loved.
BM: Natalie it’s really good to talk to you and find out about this, and just to try and give us a little bit of a steer when we’re going on holiday. When you see these things you know actually what we’re doing is we’re feeding orphanage tourism. And anti-slavery and anti-trafficking – we want to get on board with that. But actually what we’re doing is we’re feeding that by going and visiting.
Rukhiya, thank you for telling us your story and I’m so glad that you’re safe and well and doing alright, with your husband and children living in Bucks. Thank you so much!