“All the troubles in my head drain away when I am drawing,” says Mariam.
Mariam is not sure how long she lived on the street – a week, maybe more. She is always serious, hardly smiles.
The Tilahunen Charity Association (TCHA) works in partnership with SOS Children’s Villages in Ethiopia to protect the rights of children who have lost parental care or are at risk of losing it.
At their rehabilitation centre, children between 9 and 17 find shelter, food, education and health care, including life skills training and group or individual counselling.
Netsanet Yifru, a social worker who oversees the running of the facility, understands the anguish and suffering of the children she works with every day. She says Mariam was separated from her family and abused by her relatives.
“Mariam was crying a lot when she first arrived,” says Netsanet. “We told her that we would reunify her with her family in a proper way and she was happy about it. I am confident that we will reunify her with her family soon.”
Forced to leave home
Mariam had a normal childhood until two years ago when her mother married a new husband. Mariam’s stepfather refused to care for her because she was not his biological child. He turned violent, constantly beat her mother and blamed Mariam for it.
The girl was sent to another part of Ethiopia to live with her mother’s sister and go to school.
After a while, without her mother’s knowledge, Mariam was given to another family to work as a domestic servant. The family, Mariam says, refused to educate her, forced her to work and treated her badly.
“I woke up early in the morning to clean the house, wash the dishes, light the stove, and cook,” says Mariam.
“I took care of their baby and washed clothes during the day. In the evening, I made the beds, cleaned the house, dusted the furniture and TV. Finally, I could pick up my thin mattress and spread it on the kitchen floor to sleep.”
One day she was told she would be beaten “with a big stick” and kicked out of the house. Unhappy and tired of being harassed and abused, Mariam ran away to live on the streets.
“The streets were bad and there were swindlers there,” says Mariam. People insulted me. They called me lazy and told me that my parents did not care about me.
“My mother never wanted me to work in a stranger’s house. She was forced to send me from home by my stepfather who used to beat her. She was helpless.”
The Street Children Consortium estimates that Ethiopia has over 150,000 children living on the street. They survive by scavenging, begging, shining shoes or doing other odd jobs.
The children sleep outside, on pavements, at bus stops, in marketplaces. They are exposed to victimization, exploitation, harassment, sexual exploitation and abuse.
Netsanet says that most of the children at the centre ran away from home due to poverty or family breakdown.
A good Samaritan found Mariam and brought her to TCHA's centre. “It was the happiest day of my life,” she says.
TCHA aims to create a safe environment for children to recover. The centre has a spacious compound full of trees and beautiful flower gardens.
“No one can enter without permission. People respect me here. I play with the other children and when I feel tired, I watch television. I stopped working after I came here. I only play,” Mariam says.
For Netsanet and her team, breaking some of the habits the children have picked up on the streets - either due to peer pressure or just for survival - is a challenge.
“Some of them are very hot-tempered, others isolate themselves. Some pick fights with us, others want to leave and go back to street life. ” says Netsanet.
“We work with them using different counselling techniques and eventually the children settle down. They become more confident, healthier, and more positive about their future.”
Months of therapy and recovery help the children turn their lives around, reunite with their families and go back to school, boosting their chance for a good future. Their caregivers are strengthened with training on child protection and entrepreneurship so they can care and provide for their children and keep them at home.
Currently, 53 children benefit from day care services offered by TCHA. 18 others, like Mariam, are accommodated at the centre.
The centre has reunified 71 children with their families since the partnership between TCHA and SOS Children's Villages begun two years ago. “After reunification, there are follow-up phone calls and visits. We check on the children and their families to ensure they are not going to fall back into the same situation again,” says Netsanet.
Children older than 17 who wish to live independently get vocational training and receive start-up capital to set up small businesses of their choice.
Mariam is not sure if she wants to return to her mother’s house. After all, she is still married to her stepfather.
“There are three other children there, and I do not want my mother to be hit or killed because of me,” says Mariam. “I want to live with my grandparents.”
Mariam is confident that Netsanet and her team, who have become like her family, will make a decision that will best suit her needs. At the centre, she has made up her mind about the future she wants for herself.
“I have learned about the importance of education and about myself, which has changed the way I think,” she says. “Now I have hope. I have a future and I can do whatever I put my heart to.
"When I grow up and finish my studies, I would like to be a teacher. I will teach children so that they can be smart. In the process of teaching them, I will learn more myself.”