Tuesday, August 6, 2013

First Round of Interviews

It’s hard to believe that I’ve spent over a month in Addis, and that I’ll be leaving in just three short weeks.  I am now able to get around the city confidently and comfortably, I have favorite restaurants and cafés, and I’ve made many friends that I’ll be sad to leave.  Moreover, my work has finally changed from meetings with organizational staff to interviewing young people who grew up in care:  hearing their stories and experiences of transition.  This is the work that I am most interested in, and will be the basis for IOFA’s decisions moving forward on the Transitions Initiative in Ethiopia.  We want to know what the personal experience of transitioning from care institutions to independent life looks like, what challenges young people face, what supports they have, as well as the emotional aspect of leaving care. 

So far, Mikyas Feyissa (IOFA’s Ethiopian representative and translator) and I have conducted five interview sessions, each with adults from different organizations.  We heard from 5 youth from CIAI who spent much of their time on the streets until CIAI’s shelter took them in.  We met with 10 individuals who grew up in L’Esperance:  an Adventist orphanage on the outskirts of Addis.  We talked to 5 adults who grew up in Abebech Gobena (Addis Ababa’s most famous orphanage) and who are now employed by that institution.  We also met 4 girls from Kidane Mehret orphanage, who have just started transitioning to independent life.  On Saturday, we interviewed 7 young adults who grew up in SOS Children's Villages Ethiopia.  Additionally, I’ve been able to have great, informal conversations with two young men who grew up in care and who are now living independently.

Mikiyas interviews a girl from Kidane Mehret
 Each individual and group has a unique story, but there are common themes that we hear over and over again.  One challenge that every youth seems to face when they leave care is the extreme culture shock of joining the outside community.  Most orphaned children grow up isolated in institutions with very little community interaction.  Basic social skills that most children pick up through observing adults are completely foreign to orphaned youth.  Tamerat, who now works as a psychologist in a Catholic orphanage, told me that he didn’t know how to buy food or clothes because everything had always been provided in the orphanage. 

[Orphaned youth] have no budgeting skills and don’t know how to save money.  They also don’t have any role models for working and responsibility.  Other children see their parents go to work every day, [orphaned youth] don’t have that experience.  They don’t know how to manage their time to make sure everything is done.”

Every group has commented on how difficult it is to converse and interact with other people outside of the institution.  The youth feel that the community will ostracize them, which leads them to be very reserved; most Ethiopians generally do not trust reserved people, so they treat the youth as though they were of bad character.  This confirms the youth’s fears and leads to further psychological distress.  The youth also have no sense of good and bad behavior in other people, they are often too trusting of strangers.  Because the only interaction with adults has been in the orphanage, they don’t possess the healthy dose of suspicion that most of us employ when meeting new people, looking for a job, and searching for housing.

Children who grew up in this orphanage have similar thinking and conduct. We respect people and we do not pretend like people do in the society. If we trust others; we give ourselves.  On the other hand members of the society do not give themselves, they rather are selfish.”

We are also hearing that although institutions often assist the youth in pursuing some sort of education or vocational training, the support stops as soon as they graduate.  In Ethiopia, the biggest challenge for young people is finding employment.  While young people with families have the option of taking their time to find a good job (they can always stay with their parents until then), orphaned youth must enter the job market immediately so that they can support themselves.  Families also function as a job search and referral system—social connections are the key to getting a good job.  This lack of material and social support leads orphaned youth to take jobs that they are overqualified for, jobs with low wages and little opportunity of advancement. 

We suffer long periods of time without any finances…Students who graduated with fewer qualifications and lower grades secure better employment.  We graduate with honors and do not get a job at all.  You can only explain this by people having contacts: relatives, families, etc., and we do not have that.”

Having fun playing the "yes/no" game at
SOS Children's Village
For many of the participants in these interviews, telling their stories can be cathartic.  The four girls that Mikiyas and I interviewed at Kidane Mehret orphanage were disappointed that we wouldn’t be meeting again.  This was the first time anyone had asked them about their experience, showed an interest in how the transition was affecting them emotionally.  The group from L’Esperance often meet weekly for fellowship.  They said that they discuss the challenges they face and lean on each other for support.  I am glad that IOFA’s interview process gives them the experience to process and reflect on their experience, as well as assurance that people do care about them and want to make the situation better for other youth.

I’ll be conducting interviews for the next week, then compiling them in a full report for the International Organization for Adolescents’ Transitions Initiative.  When I get back to Chicago, I’ll present a project proposal to the board, explaining the basic challenges that these youth are facing and the support they need to become successful in their independent life.  You can STILL help fund this important work!  Visit my GoFundMe page to donate.  Again, every little bit helps!

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