According to UNICEF, as many as 28 million children around the world are classified as refugees or internally displaced persons -- with millions more likely unaccounted for. We see it every day in the news: so many vulnerable children fleeing the horrors of war, the aftermath of natural disasters, or the effects of persecution and a lack of opportunity. What we don’t typically see are the displaced girls and boys of another kind: those who have intentionally run away from their families. But they are among the world's most vulnerable (and forgotten).
“In a lot of ways, the reasons are similar,” says Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “Faced with violence, abuse, and neglect at home, they see little choice but to leave. And sadly, with nowhere to go for asylum, they end up on the streets.”
Freeport, Sierra Leone is no stranger to this heartbreaking phenomenon. According to estimates, as many as 2,500 youth live alone on the streets -- though the number is likely significantly higher.
“As with so many other cities around the world, rampant poverty, overcrowding, and lack of educational and economic opportunities exert a suffocating effect on families struggling just to meet their basic needs,” says Fr. Mark. Coupled with a general acceptance of abuse, far too many children become targets of frustration and anger. Others are forced into exploitative work situations in order to earn a few pennies for their family. And, when children do run away, they lose their support network -- which only adds to their trauma.
In order to help address this situation, Salesian missionaries and staff at Don Bosco Fambul offer a specialized rehabilitation program for children living on the streets.
The program meets the children’s basic needs -- food, clothing, and safe shelter -- while offering personalized medical, psychological, and spiritual care as needed. During the day, girls and boys attend class; participate in sports, music, art, and other enrichment activities; and enjoy the company of their peers in a supportive environment. At the same time, family counselors visit and work with the children’s families in order to teach them effective parenting skills.
Recently, 48 boys between the ages of 8 and 15 completed the 8-month program and successfully returned to their families during a celebratory “Reunification Day.” Families signed a contract with Don Bosco Fambul attesting that they would refrain from physical and emotional punishments, allow their chlidren to attend school, and further encourage their children’s personal growth. As part of the program, social workers will continue to support participants and their families until the students complete secondary school.
Due to the success of this initial effort, Don Bosco Fambul is currently recruiting a new set of program participants. Each night, Salesian missionaries and social workers visit five different areas of Freetown to seek out street children and make initial contact. They hope to enroll 30 girls and boys into an intensive two-month version of the program -- and will continue to be out there every day being a lifeline for even more street children.
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