Update from Addis Ababa: Experiences of youth aging out of institutionalized care

August 2, 2013

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 it 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 independence.

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Mikiyas and three research participants from Kidane Mehret

So far, Mikiyas Feyissa (IOFA’s Ethiopian representative and translator) and I have conducted four 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.  Additionally, I have been able to have great, informal conversations with two young men who grew up in care and who are now living independently.

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 easily trusting of strangers.  Because their only interactions with adults have been in the orphanage, the youth often do not 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.”

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Focus group participants at L’Esperance orphanage answering yes/no questions by making either an “n” or a “y” shape with their bodies

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 family support often have the option of staying with their parents while looking for a good job, orphaned youth must enter the job market immediately so that they can support themselves.  Families also function as a job search and referral system in a place where 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 over-qualified 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.”

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 would not be meeting again.  This was the first time anyone had asked them about their experience or showed an interest in how the transition was affecting them emotionally.  The group from L’Esperance meets 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 some of these youth the opportunity to process and reflect on their experience, as well as assurance that people do care about them and want to make the experience better for youth aging out of care.

Sarah Lyn Jones,
Transitions Initiative Intern

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