Update from Addis Ababa: Youth aging out of orphanage care

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August 13, 2013
Addis Ababa

This past Saturday, Mikiyas and I wrapped up the last set of interviews here in Addis Ababa.  In total, we talked to 58 individuals from 9 different organizations.  Their stories reflect a vast range of experiences, with some being very successful in their independent life and some still struggling to find work and shelter 8 years after leaving care.  For some interviews, we were able to go in depth and hear very personal stories of the transition process. All of these interviews have given us an anecdotal slice of the breadth and depth of challenges youth face once they leave care.

Our last interview was at the headquarters of Service In Mission (SIM). The clinic director, Mary Vanderwal, has been doing volunteer work with young men who aged out of a large orphanage in Addis.  Because of her established relationship with the boys, we expected a good turnout of around 8 to 10 participants.  The line taxi pulled up with 18 men, aged 22-29, ready to talk about their experiences.  Thank goodness we had enough food!  Because we had so many participants, Mikiyas and I used the large-group interview model we developed for IOFA’s summer research.  A young Ethiopian theology student, Tseyone, was also present and translated for me as Mikiyas facilitated the discussion.

“I found my aunt and uncle, but they wouldn’t let me stay in their house or give me money for my education.”

Mikiyas first asked about the general experience of these young men as they aged out of care.  They said that the orphanage gave them a lump sum of money and then basically turned them loose.  The boys had no idea how to budget or manage finances, and this money was gone within a month, without the boys securing a job our housing.  Many of them lived with friends or in khat houses*, which now rent rooms. The boys may have completed their public education, but received no vocational training or support to attend a university or college.

Some of the participants discussing the challenges they faced during transition

Some of the participants discussing the challenges they faced during transition

Mikiyas then broke the boys into 3 small groups and asked them to discuss three different topics: the primary challenges they faced once they left the orphanage, how they managed to provide for themselves, and the kind of support available to them once they left.  The young men were instructed to write down their experiences and elect a representative to report back to the larger group.  This is what we heard:

Primary Challenges:
“Because they know we are from the orphanage, the society doesn’t trust us.  They think that we are all criminals.”  “Landlords won’t rent to us, businesses won’t employ us.”  “We pretend that we have families so that we can get work, but someone always finds out.  Once they know we are from the orphanage, they will find a reason to fire us.”  “We can’t even get an ID card*.  Without an ID card, how are we supposed to get a job?”

“Because they know we are from the orphanage, the society doesn’t trust us.  They think that we are all criminals.”

Self-Sufficiency:
“We can get some work in day labor.”  “We stay with friends, mostly other boys from the orphanage.”  “We don’t have a choice where we stay.  I have to be careful because I can’t always trust the people I stay with.  I have had many things stolen.”  “We don’t know how to cook, and we don’t always have a kitchen.  Mostly, I eat food I buy on the street.”

Family and Social Support:
“Our families don’t help us.”  “I found my aunt and uncle, but they wouldn’t let me stay in their house or give me money for my education.”  “Our brothers are in the orphanage, or are outside with us. They are our only family.”  “We try to support each other, but none of us has much to give the others.”  “Our family didn’t welcome us.  Society didn’t welcome us.  Only addiction welcomed us.”

“We try to support each other, but none of us has much to give the others.”

After these presentations, Mikiyas brought out a poster-board with a drawing of a soccer goal.  The goal, he explained, stood for success in their independent life.  We then passed out small paper soccer balls and blue sticky notes.  The boys were instructed to write a goal that they had for their lives on the sticky notes, attach the note to a soccer ball and place the ball either on the poster (if the goal had been achieved) or outside the poster (if their attempts had failed so far).  After the boys “scored” their goals, we handed out red sticky notes and green sticky notes.  The red sticky notes were for the balls outside the poster—those goals that had not been achieved.  The green sticky notes were for the goals that had been realized.  On the red sticky notes, the boys were instructed to write the obstacles that kept them from achieving each of their goals.  On the green sticky notes, they were asked to write down the support that made their achievements possible.  They then were told to pair the red and green sticky notes to the appropriate soccer balls.

Writing goals and placing them on the poster (successful) or outside (unsuccessful)

Writing goals and placing them on the poster (successful) or outside (unsuccessful)

Many of the balls outside of the poster had to do with finding stable work, having a place to stay, and having a family one day.  The challenges that were most often named stemmed from systemic issues:  there weren’t enough jobs available, the boys don’t have proper vocational training, etc.  Many of the balls on the poster (achievements) were social in nature—many had found friends outside the orphanage, and some had even found romantic partners.  These successes were attributed to the boys’ own personalities, patience, and hard work.

After the interview session ended, the boys were invited to lunch in the common area.  We went through 25 injera, 2 pots of lamb stew, and 2 big bowls of vegetable wot.  All of the participants told us that they found the interview process extremely helpful.  It was good, they said, to have somewhere safe to go and discuss their lives and the challenges they face.  Usually, they only come together in bars and khat houses.  They also appreciated that people were actually interested in their experience and that work was being done to help other children.  “Our lives are difficult, they will always be difficult,” one young man said.  “But it is important that our younger brothers [still in the orphanage] don’t have the same experience.”

Sarah Lyn Jones
Transitions Initiative Intern

*Khat houses are places in Addis where young men can smoke shisha & marijuana, drink, and chew khat.  These establishments often offer a place to sleep and some food for a low price because they make money on the addictive substances they sell.
**In order to get an ID card in Ethiopia, you have to have a permanent residence and someone to vouch for you, to provide a “guarantee.”  The person who provides the guarantee must also have an ID card and be willing to have some sort of legal connection to you.  Because these young men don’t have either, they cannot get an ID card.  Without an ID card, they cannot enroll in educational/vocational programs or apply for the majority of jobs.

Support Sarah’s work in Addis Ababa at http://www.gofundme.com/Transitions-Initiative

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Greetings from Addis Ababa

July 12, 2013

It has now been two 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:

AHOPE Kids

AHOPE Kids

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.

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 and cultural 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. Unlike in the United States, people in Addis do not often move to new neighborhoods and communities. 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.  In a culture and society so focused on communal interaction, this kind of social isolation can be psychologically and emotionally devastating.

Retrak Vocational Training Program

Retrak Vocational Training Program

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.

Women In Self Employment (WISE)

Selam Children’s Village

AHOPE Ethiopia

Children’s Heaven

The Organization for Rehabilitation and Development in Amhara (ORDA)

The Italian Center for Children’s Aid (CIAI)

ReTrak

Kingdom Vision International

Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture in Ethiopia (RCVTE)

Sarah Lyn Jones
Transitions Initiative Intern

Photo 1: Retrak Vocational Training Program

Photo 2: AHOPE Kids

Welcome to Addis Ababa, Sarah!

July 4, 2013

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After finishing my undergraduate degree, I had the incredible opportunity to live and work in South India, teaching girls and young women conversational English and volunteering at different women’s organizations.  It was there that I fell in love with youth-centered service work, and am now pursuing my Masters in Social Work at the University of Chicago, focusing on international social work.  After graduating, I hope to find work with an internationally-focused organization that invests in, supports, and empowers vulnerable youth and young adults around the world. 

I am excited to start my work as the Transitions Initiative Intern with IOFA!  This summer, I will be in Addis Ababa doing research on the experience of adolescents who have left institutional care (orphanages, group homes, etc.) to make their own way in the world.  Youth and young adults who lack the support of family networks face severe challenges in transitioning to adulthood, and are much more vulnerable to the problems of exploitation, poverty, and violence.  Throughout the next two months, I will be working with local organizations to identify and interview individuals who grew up without traditional family support and record their transition stories.

I have been in Addis for only 10 days, but am already falling in love with the city and its people.  As I meet with organizational directors, humanitarian workers, and children at group homes/orphanages, I am learning much about the needs of these youth and am energized and inspired to continue the amazing work that IOFA does with the Transitions Initiative. 

Sarah Lyn Jones

Transitions Initiative Intern