Caring for the most vulnerable of the vulnerable: orphans in Brazzaville

News Stories, 12 September 2011

© UNHCR/D.Biciu
Children in the orphanages are expected to cook and clean.

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo, September 12 (UNHCR) In his traumatic young life, Alphonse has been forced to flee his country, lost his mother and been accused of witchcraft. But while the 12-year-old refugee faces a tough future, he is now surrounded by people who care.

The youngster now lives at the Centre of Insertion and Reinsertion of Vulnerable Children (CIREV), one of at least five UNHCR-supported orphanages in the Republic of Congo capital that take in parentless refugee children among the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

Alphonse's parents hailed from Rwanda, but he was born in exile. About 10 years ago, he moved with his mother and stepfather to Impfondo in northern Republic of Congo. When his mother died soon after their arrival, Alphonse was abandoned at the UNHCR office in the riverside town.

He was sent to live with a foster family, but they too rejected him, accusing the boy of sorcery a common accusation when foster parents start finding it difficult to feed an extra mouth. But it also meant that Alphonse was ostracised, until UNHCR intervened and referred him to CIREV.

Orphanages like the government-run CIREV can't promise a bright future for their charges, including street children, but they provide food, shelter, education, solidarity and protection. And, of course, the children can identify with each other and make friends, Congolese and refugees alike.

"Unfortunately, the psychological assistance is almost non-existent here," CIREV Director Barthelemy Peya said, highlighting the lack of infrastructure and professional resources in the orphanages, where many of the children, especially refugees, need counselling for deep-rooted trauma. "All we can do is to keep them with us, as long as possible," he added.

Most of the orphanages in Brazzaville are run by Christian churches, including the Notre Dame de Nazareth Centre, which is home to 52 children ranging in age from a few months old to 17. They include 12 registered refugees.

"Most of the kids are brought here by social workers, the local parishes and the police," explained Sister Marie Thèrese, who runs the centre. "Our main challenge is not only to feed them properly, but also to build real human beings." The children are educated and are expected to cook and clean.

Eleven-year-old Yvette, also from Rwanda, has been at the Notre Dame centre for the past two years with her two brothers and her sister. She loves maths and French and has a healthy competitive streak; when UNHCR visited she was complaining about coming second in her French class.

The Yamba Ngai Centre, also run by nuns, includes six refugee siblings from Burundi aged four to 13 years old among its 42 children. It should only hold half that number but, as Sister Marie Lourdes explained: "We cannot leave the kids on the streets, it would be even worse for them," she said, adding: "We are in front of the wall and to get past, we often have to break it."

Unaccompanied refugee children, including orphans, are people of major concern to UNHCR and the agency provides mainly food assistance for them in five orphanages in Brazzaville and regularly monitors their well-being as well as the welfare of those living with foster families. In total, UNHCR helps 214 refugee orphans or unaccompanied minors, living in special centres or with foster families around the country,

Esther Benizri, a UNHCR protection officer, said that the agency was effectively helping all children in the centres. "It's difficult to help only the refugee children and to ignore the others," she said, adding that the main aim was to maintain good standards. "We conduct evaluations, to establish the best interest of every child and to help find durable solutions for their future." That essentially means either voluntary repatriation or local integration.

By Daniela Livia Bîciu in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo




UNHCR country pages


Almost half the people of concern to UNHCR are children. They need special care.

Refworld – Children

Refworld – Children

This Special Feature on Child Protection is a comprehensive source of relevant legal and policy documents, practical tools and links to related websites.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

The Children of Harmanli Face a Bleak Winter

Since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011, more than 2 million people have fled the violence. Many have made their way to European Union countries, finding sanctuary in places like Germany and Sweden. Others are venturing into Europe by way of Bulgaria, where the authorities struggle to accommodate and care for some 8,000 asylum-seekers, many of whom are Syrian. More than 1,000 of these desperate people, including 300 children, languish in an overcrowded camp in the town of Harmanli, 50 kilometres from the Turkish-Bulgarian border. These people crossed the border in the hope of starting a new life in Europe. Some have travelled in family groups; many have come alone with dreams of reuniting in Europe with loved ones; and still others are unaccompanied children. The sheer number of people in Harmanli is taxing the ability of officials to process them, let alone shelter and feed them. This photo essay explores the daily challenges of life in Harmanli.

The Children of Harmanli Face a Bleak Winter

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees are children who have sought shelter in urban areas with their families. Unlike those in camps, refugees living in towns and cities in countries like Iraq, Turkey and Jordan often find it difficult to gain access to aid and protection. In a refugee camp, it is easier for humanitarian aid organizations such as UNHCR to provide shelter and regular assistance, including food, health care and education. Finding refugees in urban areas, let alone helping them, is no easy task.

In Iraq, about 100,000 of the 143,000 Syrian refugees are believed to be living in urban areas - some 40 per cent of them are children aged under 18 years. The following photographs, taken in the northern city of Erbil by Brian Sokol, give a glimpse into the lives of some of these young urban refugees. They show the harshness of daily life as well as the resilience, adaptability and spirit of young people whose lives have been overturned in the past two years.

Life is difficult in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The cost of living is high and it is difficult to find work. The refugees must also spend a large part of their limited resources on rent. UNHCR and its partners, including the Kurdish Regional Government, struggle to help the needy.

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Greece: The Refugees' Grandmother in Idomeni
Play video

Greece: The Refugees' Grandmother in Idomeni

From her small house in Idomeni, Greek grandmother Panagiota Vasileiadou, 82, saw first-hand the bare need of refugees desperate for food to feed their children or clean water to shower and wash their clothes. As a daughter of ethnic Greek refugees herself - who left Turkey in a population exchange after the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war - she is now doing all she can to help the latest wave of refugees by giving out food and clothes.
Greece: Health risk to refugee children in IdomeniPlay video

Greece: Health risk to refugee children in Idomeni

Some 10,000 refugees and migrants remain camped out at an informal site at Greece's northern border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The makeshift home is also home to an estimated 4,000 children, the majority of whom are under the age of five. Doctors warn conditions in the camp are becoming dangerous for children.
Syria: Homs war children find home in abandoned hotelPlay video

Syria: Homs war children find home in abandoned hotel

After five years of conflict that destroyed their spacious children's home in Wa'ar, dozens of orphaned and abandoned children had to relocate to a small former hotel in nearby Homs. The abandoned hotel has limited dormitories, no playgrounds or classroom.