20 March 2014

Finding safety and a new home in the Central African Republic: One child’s story

Four year old Marc* was found at a camp for internally displaced persons at Bangui airport, in the Central African Republic capital. He had lost his parents and had been taken in by another family which mistreated him. He has now been taken in by the SOS Children’s Village Bangui, which is hoping to locate his parents.

The boy with the pink shoes
 
When Marc arrived at the SOS Children’s Village Bangui he was wearing pink shoes. Benedetta Niederhauesern, Health and Emergency Advisor for SOS Children’s Villages in Africa, noticed them immediately. He was small for his age [it is estimated that he is about four years old] and very sad, Benedetta recalls. She asked the co-workers at the village about the boy.
 
Marc’s story was disturbing. Amidst the chaos of factional fighting in CAR between Christian, Muslim and other militia, Marc had lost his parents and had somehow ended up at the camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) located at Bangui airport. Crammed with tents and makeshift dwellings, without proper sanitation and definitely not child-friendly, the camp houses a minimum of 100,000 people. Small children like Marc, lost and alone, are vulnerable, and Marc was taken in by another family, who, instead of offering the protection he was entitled to, mistreated him.
 
Trying to trace his family
 
Marc was lucky in a sense, because his circumstances were discovered and he was quickly referred to SOS Children’s Villages by staff from Save the Children, who together with UNICEF, the ICRC and other organisations were working on tracing and unifying families. SOS Children’s Villages have agreed to provide interim care to unaccompanied children for a minimum of three months.
 
When Benedetta saw Marc it was his first day at the village and the shoes were part of a replacement set of clothes he had been given. Marc’s comfort was more important than the colour of his shoes, which were the only ones they could find at the time.
 
Creating an emergency response
 
SOS Children’s Villages has been operating an emergency response in the Central African Republic since December 2013, just before the crisis reached its peak. Alerted by the national director that about 1,000 people were seeking sanctuary at the children’s village, the organisation converted the SOS primary school into a shelter for displaced persons.
 
The SOS Children’s Village became a sanctuary in great part because it is not affiliated with any religion. Located in a very poor part of the city, it was nevertheless able to take in the internally displaced people because the national director had managed to stock up with food, water and even fuel for the generator, as the crisis began. The fact that at intervals it was guarded by international peacekeeping soldiers deployed to protect the civilian population also helped. At a peak in February this year, about 4,500 people were being sheltered and protected at the SOS Children’s Village Bangui.
 
The initial phase of the emergency operation also concentrated on health, and the SOS Children’s Village partnered with Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) who brought their mobile clinic into the village. While MSF treated wounded people, the SOS medical staff focused on child and maternal health and malnutrition. Even SOS mothers and aunts with adequate knowledge of first aid got involved.
 
“It was a general mobilisation of everyone inside the village,” said Benedetta, and long queues formed every day as the people of Bangui sought medical care in the relative safety of the SOS Children’s Village.
 
Situation more stable
 
While the situation in both Bangui and Bouar (where another SOS Children’s Village is located) is still volatile, it has stabilised enough for both villages to reopen their schools. “Schools reopened on 17 February”, said Benedetta, “and they are doing double shifts. The morning is for those children already enrolled and the afternoon is for the displaced children, because other schools are still closed.”
 
As the emergency operation in the Central African Republic reaches the recovery stage SOS Children’s Villages is beginning to concentrate on its core mandate: child protection, primary health care for families, and education. In addition a psychologist has been retained to offer group psychosocial support to all 163 SOS co-workers in the CAR and to equip them to recognise traumatised children so that they are dealt with appropriately.
 
According to Benedetta, mental health has been identified as the biggest gap in emergency support in CAR, so SOS Children’s Villages is working with UNOCHA’s ‘Who, What and Where’ (a global tool used to coordinate information during emergencies) to tackle this. And from 1 April the organisation will have a presence in Bossangoa, a city that has seen huge displacement of people. Key staff are currently being recruited.
 
One child as important as many
 
Meanwhile little Marc has found not just a refuge but also a home with an SOS family. “Already,” said Benedetta, “his health is improving - and he is beginning to interact with other children.”
 
She added: “I am glad that SOS is giving a high standard of care to each single child instead of trying to reach high numbers, sacrificing the quality of care.”
 
SOS Children’s Village Bangui Director Jésus Jonas Zokayando said: “It is a great pleasure to see Marc smile every time I come to the village. Whenever he sees me, he runs towards me shouting Papa! Papa! It gives me great joy to see him now enjoying the warmth of a loving home. When Marc came to the Village, he was extremely malnourished. He was underweight. We put him on a special nutrition programme. He has been receiving special meals and he is now progressing well. It is encouraging to see such a child, who is the future of the country, growing well, even though he had been neglected by other people.”
 
He added: “At the peak of the crisis, so many children were separated from their parents. As SOS, in our capacity as a child care organisation, we already had in place a policy for such situations. This is how we brought Marc to safety.”
 
* Marc’s name has been changed to protect his identity