It has now been three weeks since I arrived in Addis, and already I have learned much about the situation of orphans and vulnerable children in Ethiopia, as well as the obstacles they face in transitioning out of care and reintegrating into the outside community. After many long conversations and meetings with various NGOs and care institutions here, this is the general picture of the future of those children growing up in care institutions:
First, most institutions in Addis are orphanages whose main goal is international adoption for their children. As they grow older, their chances of adoption grow slim. Many of the orphanages that focus on adoption do not have plans for children who have grown too old for adoption, and the children keep hoping and dreaming that they will leave Ethiopia one day. Some care institutions move children to group homes after a certain age, or try to reintegrate them with their extended families.
Some care institutions are not interested in adoption. These institutions can be private and well-funded (like Selam Children’s Villages) or public institutions (like Kolfe and Kechene orphan homes). The private institutions usually have an organized plan for transition and reintegration, including gradual transitions to independent living, scholarships for university, vocational training, etc. The public institutions are overpopulated and understaffed, and often do not have the funding or the manpower to thoroughly address the issues that these children will face outside of the only home they have ever known.
|Imagine growing up in a compound with lots of other kids, then being asked to make a life on your own in the big city|
The challenges that these children will face when they age out of care are many. The biggest challenge seems to be the culture shock that they encounter as soon as they leave the institution. Many of these children have been isolated in these care institutions for their entire lives. They often do not have the social skills necessary for community life in Ethiopia, which is a different culture than the in which they grew up; this seems to be especially true for young people from large institutions that have a more dormitory living arrangements. Some institutions work with a village model, raising the children in homes of 8-10 that effectively function as family units. Still, the children in these village-based organizations have very little contact with the surrounding communities and have developed a certain set of social skills that allowed them to function within the institution but not outside. Without social and cultural education, these young people often find it challenging to integrate themselves into the city of Addis Ababa.
A complementary challenge to transition comes from Ethiopian community-based culture itself. Most children in Addis grow up in a community in which their family is established. They often do not move far from that community, even when they reach adulthood. People do not move to new neighborhoods and communities like we do in the United States. Young people leaving care must find homes in established communities and they are often viewed as invaders. Because no one knows who they are or much about their background, the community often does not trust or engage with these young people. Being an orphan or an unsupported youth in Ethiopia also carries its own stigma. They are often seen as delinquents, which creates another barrier to community integration. Keep in mind that when these youth leave care, they are also leaving behind their entire social network. It’s often not an option for these young people to come back to the community in which they grew up except for short visits. In a culture and society so focused on communal interaction, this kind of social isolation can be psychologically and emotionally devastating.
|Communal culture is even reflected in the food. Everyone eats from the same plate; there are no such things as "single servings" in Ethiopia|
The social and cultural challenges that these young people face are difficult enough, but often added to this burden is lack of support in securing basic needs. Some youth attend university, some get vocational training. The quality of education is variable, depending on not only an individual’s academic performance but also on how much financial support they get from their institution. Because Addis attracts many people from all regions of Ethiopia and because the youth are the fastest growing population in Ethiopia, there is a shortage of good jobs. Many young people cannot get a job for at least a year after graduating from college. If and when young people do find work, they often do not make enough to support themselves. It is common for young people to live with their parents after they have graduated from university or vocational school until they get married—a good 2-6 years. Without the support of a family system to fall back on, many orphaned and unsupported youth are forced to take job opportunities that others pass up—jobs that are low-paying. Some institutions do support their former residents by giving them housing and food allowance, but these are in the minority.
Fortunately, the Ethiopian government is finally realizing that there is a service gap in reintegration and transition support. Along with moving away from the traditional dormitory/orphanage model of care for unsupported or orphaned children, the government is trying to incorporate models of care that mimic community and village life. UNICEF Ethiopia is also collaborating with Kolfe and Kechene orphanages in Addis on reintegration education and support programs, though the funding and results of their efforts are still unclear.
All of this information has come from administrative staff of various NGOs and care institutions here in Addis Ababa. I am very interested to hear from those individuals who have transitioned into the city of Addis about their own experiences, to hear their own individual stories.
If you are interested in learning about the organizations with which IOFA will be working with this summer, here is a list. Each is doing great work and deserves to be known.