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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Foster care youth vulnerable to human trafficking

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Operation Cross Country VII, the FBI-led minor sex trafficking sting late last month, shocked Americans as it exposed the reality of human trafficking in the United States. Even more frightening has been the realization that many of the exploited youth identified in the sting were recruited directly out of the foster care system. [1]

What about the situation of youth “in the system” creates such vulnerability?

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There are numerous factors.

Each year, more than 26,000 American youth age out of care. [2] Understandably, many identify their main challenge as not having a familial support system to back them when they have a need. Whereas youth growing up in consistent family settings have adults present to provide advice, support, and resources, youth in foster care are often accustomed to changing living situations and will likely not maintain a lifelong connection with any of their temporary guardians.

Foster care youth also may not have been given consistent, unconditional acceptance and support. They are given new rules and expectations in each household they enter and in each agency from which they receive support. Accustomed to a checklist mentality of “performance”, one youth puts it, “you grow up sort of having to audition – for everything.” [3]

“You grow up sort of having to audition – for everything.”

Traffickers recognize that youth with this background are accustomed to their needs being met on a conditional basis, and that they have a hunger for unconditional acceptance. Traffickers promise a bed to sleep in each night, all physical needs to be met, and intense emotional connection. Their promises of love coupled with demands for trafficked youth to perform sex acts or provide free labor create an intricate web of emotional manipulation while meeting the need for love and support.

Traffickers also exploit the often-rocky backgrounds of foster care youth. Most of the youth who enter the foster care system have put in the State’s care because of a situation of abuse or neglect at home. The psychological and emotional effects of these experiences make these youth particularly susceptible to the abuses of traffickers. The normalization of sexual violence and the unmet need for nurturance and support increase the chances that a potential trafficking victim can be psychologically coerced into compliance with a trafficker.

Youth who are aging out of foster care also may be more vulnerable to traffickers because of financial need. They must find a way to support themselves building from the ground up. Nearly half do not finish high school, and homelessness is often a problem upon aging out. [3] Without a financial or housing safety net in place, they often operate in short-term mode, making ends meet day to day with little flexibility to invest in the future. As one youth who ended up homeless put it, “Life hits you hard after you get out. You feel like the whole world is against you.” [4] Promises of love, emotional support, financial support, and housing are hard to pass up for youth who may not be offered these basic needs elsewhere.

“Life hits you hard after you get out. You feel like the whole world is against you.”

Moreover, when youth age out of State care, they often drop off the radar completely. The State is no longer responsible for them and there may not be the long-term support of family or friends looking out for them. Given how often youth in foster care are moved around, no one may show alarm the moment an aged-out youth goes missing. No one is held accountable for them and traffickers take advantage of this vulnerability.

These issues are complex and are just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, it is not only in the United States that youth in alternative care face extreme vulnerability to human trafficking and other dangerous situations and exploitation.

The Transitions Initiative in Ethiopia marks IOFA’s commitment to supporting youth aging out of alternative care and building awareness of their situations upon leaving care. Keep an eye out for IOFA intern Sarah’s reports on her research this summer with these youth, learning what they have to say about their experiences aging out of care.

Alexa Schnieders
Program Development Intern

[1] http://www.kspr.com/news/kspr-alarming-number-of-children-lured-into-sex-trafficking-come-right-out-of-the-foster-system-20130801,0,2909596.story
[2] http://www.childrensrights.org/issues-resources/foster-care/facts-about-foster-care/
[3] http://wesa.fm/post/facing-new-life-after-aging-out-foster-care-system
[4] http://www.the-review.com/editors%20pick/2013/08/05/ohio-program-readies-foster-children-to-live-alone
Image: http://www.lollydaskal.com/leadership/stay-vulnerable-even-when-it-hurts/