“Look, I already understand: it is not Fambul that changes boys; it is Don Bosco, because he has already changed me.” That wisdom, combined with old-fashioned persistence, earned young Osman a place at Don Bosco Fambul -- and with it, the potential to transform what once promised to be a grim future.
Like so many boys and girls in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Osman’s childhood had been lost to the streets: a heartbreaking effect of the Ebola epidemic, combined with ongoing endemic poverty and a lack of respect for children’s rights. According to some estimates, there are as many as 2,500 homeless youth in Freetown -- though the number is likely much higher. And, with no caring adult to look after them, these children battle malnutrition, disease, abuse, labor exploitation and worse: an all-too visible reminder of society’s failure to protect its most vulnerable.
Osman had been living on the street for so long that he didn’t recall his age, when he had last attended school or where his family was living -- if they were even alive. He only knew the daily struggle of staying safe, finding a morsel to eat and seeking shelter from the elements. So, when some of his peers directed him to Don Bosco Fambul’s outreach bus, he was intrigued.
Officially called the “Mobile Unit for the Protection of Children at Risk,” and staffed with health care providers and social workers, the bus travels to Freetown’s most impoverished neighborhoods and offers meals, clean clothes, showers and basic health care. It also serves as an introductory point: educating homeless youth about Don Bosco Fambul’s full complement of programs, in an effort to encourage them to leave the streets.
Since 2001, when Salesian missionaries first began working to rehabilitate former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Don Bosco Fambul has become one of the country’s leading child welfare organizations -- offering food, clothing, shelter, educational opportunities and family reunification counseling. After hearing about this during his first visit to the bus, Osman immediately realized that he wanted more than a temporary bandage for the wounds of his existence. He wanted complete healing and permanent change.
Despite there being no space for him at Don Bosco Fambul, Osman was not deterred. Soon, the boy began showing up on the premises every evening in order to advocate for his cause. “What do I have to do to become one of Fambul?” he would ask.
“He told us that he’d noticed a change among the youth he knew who had come to us,” says Father Jorge Crisafulli, director of Don Bosco Fambul. “They were happier and well-behaved. He wanted to experience that change for himself, and very quickly convinced us that he was serious!”
Today, Osman is a shining testament to the power of Don Bosco. Living at the shelter, and attending basic education classes, he has distinguished himself through his joy, service and desire to pull himself out of his circumstances. He also hopes that Salesian missionaries will help reunite him with his family. “If they have not lost the hope of seeing me again, we will be very happy, given my desire to find them!” he says.
“Osman is almost a premonition of what Sierra Leone itself can become,” says Fr. Jorge. “We hope his story inspires other youth to seek us out, and to work toward positive change.”
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