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Refugees Magazine Issue 100 (Refugee women) - Foster families in Rwanda

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1995

Believing that unaccompanied children are better off living with foster parents than in institutions, Food for the Hungry International set up a programme to support those who support children.

By Fernando del Mundo

Sperantia Nyirantibenda vividly recalls the night she was unceremoniously turned into a foster parent by soldiers who brought her five children and two sacks of maize.

They came knocking at her door in the town of Gitarama as the civil war in Rwanda was winding down. Nyirantibenda, a 34-year-old school teacher, nervously opened the door and immediately recognized the smiling faces before her.

Weeks before, the soldiers had asked her to care for two women they had rescued from a mass grave. The women had been dumped in the grave after being assaulted by militiamen and given up for dead.

"I have brought you children," one of the soldiers told Nyirantibenda this time. "I will see you later." The maize the soldiers left behind did not last very long, and they never came back.

Nyirantibenda is still caring for the children. She says she will gladly keep them so long as she receives some assistance.

Food for the Hungry International (FHI), a U.S.-based voluntary organization supported by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, has come in to help the school teacher, providing regular food rations and health care for the children. They are among over 7,000 people benefiting from a programme to help orphans and lost youngsters living with foster parents and other selected adults in the community at large, instead of in orphanages and similar institutions.

FHI originally began the programme to help children separated from their families at Mugunga camp, near Goma in eastern Zaire, one month after more than a million Rwandese refugees flooded into Goma in July 1994, fleeing victorious troops of the Rwandese Patriotic Front.

The three-month civil war, triggered by a plane crash that killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi on 6 April 1994, forced over half of Rwanda's 7.3 million population from their homes. At least 500,000 people died in a genocide aimed at the Tutsi minority.

An estimated 95,000 children were separated from their families during the war. Nearly half of them were inside Rwanda and the rest were in refugee camps in Zaire, Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda, which together hold more than 2.1 million refugees.

At the outset of the refugee influx into Goma, conditions in the camps were appalling. Thousands of refugees were dying every day of cholera, dysentery and other diseases. Youngsters were being picked up beside bodies lying along the roads. Starving parents were abandoning their children or sending them to centres for unaccompanied minors in the camps.

Rachel Poulton, an FHI nurse, said that during a visit to a tent for separated children, a 5-year-old girl followed her and asked for help. She said her parents were dead. The girl kept glancing over her shoulder at a woman who Poulton subsequently discovered was her mother. The woman later told Poulton she could no longer feed her daugther.

Poulton said that, over a four-day period, 184 children arrived at the tent and 16 others were brought by elders. "There were also a lot of people fostering mostly grandmothers and aunts. And there were sibling groups," she said. She said that a system was developed whereby FHI supported groups of unaccompanied children.

"The challenge was to support these children in the community rather than in institutions. This shows another way of caring," Poulton said. She said she prefered to see children grow up in a family setting rather than in orphanages.

In Gitarama, FHI supports families which have taken in orphans and lost children, as well as unaccompanied minors who have formed into groups to live together, and women like Nyirantibenda. They receive blankets and shelter materials and a regular supply of corn, beans and oil from FHI.

Some relief agencies are not only supporting various programmes for unaccompanied minors, but are also pooling resources to help track missing relatives. Among them are the United Nations Children's Fund, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Save the Children Fund. As of March, over 7,000 children had been reunited with their families.

A large number of unaccompanied minors turn up in orphanages, such as the red-brick compound of Saint Andrew's church at Kabgayi in Gitarama. Three months after it was set up by Abundant Life International an organization of former Rwandese exiles from Uganda the orphanage was teeming with 536 children. The youngsters were either brought to the institution or fetched by workers who had been informed of their location.

"Soldiers would come to us to tell us where we could find the children and we would go and pick them up," said an official. He said he himself had packed in his car 30 children he had picked up from nearby Kibuye prefecture where camps for displaced people had been closed. "We get groups of 60, 70 children," he said.

While attention is focused on orphanages and centres for unaccompanied minors, in fact a greater proportion of the children about 60 percent are with foster families or ad hoc groups. These are the ones that FHI and similar organizations are targeting for assistance.

"These separated children in the communities need food. They need someone to give them stability. They need someone they can turn to," said Myra Adamson. A 63-year-old nurse, born in South Africa to American missionary parents, Adamson regularly visits care givers and foster parents living in bombed-out houses and shops in Gitarama. "The family would be destroyed if the children were brought to orphanages," she said.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 100 (1995)

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