Saving the street kids of Kigali

Saving the street kids of Kigali
A Canadian program aims to make life a little easier for street youths in Rwanda
Elaine O’Connor, The Province
Published: Sunday, June 01, 2008

Canadian aid worker Jennifer Kamari is pushing her toddler in a stroller in Rwanda’s capital, talking about the challenges of helping the street kids of Kigali, when she’s suddenly approached by two of them.

A ragged girl and boy bleating for money: "Faranga, faranga!"

They look just a few years older than Kamari’s daughter, Isabella. But Kamari doesn’t offer money. Instead, the 37-year-old gives them what she believes is real help: directions to International Teams Canada Vivante Street Kids Association.

She tells them to look for "Jesus Christ" to get there. Those are the blue-painted words on the roof of Vivante Church that serve as a billboard for the city’s thousands of street youth. In this hilly city with so many vantage points, it’s the best way for barely literate children to find safety.

Rwanda has the highest proportion of orphans and child-headed households in the world, according to a 2005 UNICEF report. Many children lost their parents in the genocide; now AIDS is creating more orphans.

In 2006, Rwanda’s minister of gender and families estimated 1.2 million were orphaned and vulnerable. The majority receive aid from charities or were adopted. But a 2002 UNICEF study estimated 7,000 street children lived in Rwanda, 3,000 in the capital alone. Their lives are bleak. In 2004, UNICEF estimated 2,140 child prostitutes were working in Rwanda’s cities. A 2003 UN report estimated 31 per cent of children aged five to 14 were engaged in child labour.

Human Rights Watch has documented mass arrests of street kids, but the government is starting to change its tactics. It adopted a National Policy for Orphans in 2003, set limits on child labour and founded a few vocational schools and safe houses.

But there are still gaping holes for people like Kamari to fill.

She and her Rwandan husband, Serge, began ministering to street kids (mayibobo in Kinyarwanda) in 2004. They met on Kamari’s trip to Rwanda to set up a program for ITC. She’d been working in Elmira, Ont., directing missions in 40 countries.

Serge, 32, grew up in the Congo in a Rwandan Tutsi family, the second of eight children. At 17 he joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front to fight the genocidal militias and was only demobilized in 2005 after finishing university. He was volunteering with Vivante in Kigali when Jennifer came to visit. They married in 2006.

Vivante started by feeding Sunday dinner to youths loitering around the church. Under the Kamaris, the program grew to dinner for 250 street youth aged six to 25, 20 of them girls. They now do twice-weekly dinners and educate, clothe, house and find identity cards and medical care for the kids.

In 2006, they began intensive work with a group of 10 youths, renting a home, teaching remedial classes, paying for vocational school and helping them find work as carpenters and welders.

"They’re unhappy with their lives, but they feel they have no way to change it," Jennifer says. "Each of them has worth. They have talents, they have skills. But to get them thinking that takes a long time. To see the lightbulbs go off is amazing. When they have self-worth, they can make good choices."

En route to Vivante, Serge drives by youths with rags and jerry cans of water who wash down cars and scooters for a few Rwandan francs. They sniff gas and are regularly caught by police, taken to an old factory in Gikondo (used to hold vagrants and prostitutes) and beaten. In 2006, a Human Rights Watch report found one-third of the 600 prisoners here were children. At least one has died in custody.

Some of the youths who have survived the prison sit on a bench outside Vivante’s kitchen and talk about what brought them there.

Emmanuel Bizimana, 25, was born in Butare and lost his entire family, save two uncles, in the genocide. The uncles put him out at 11 years of age. He slept in the bush and worked as a porter. He used drugs, was arrested, beaten and imprisoned four times.

"It is a very difficult life. You are just scared. You don’t know where to get food. The police come and take you to prison or just beat you."

Two years ago, he came to Vivante for a meal. They taught him to read and write. Now he’s living in a house and graduated from Centre des Formations des Gens trades school. He plans to be a welder.

"It is like a miracle to me," he says.

"I feel a responsibility to them to do what I can to bring hope to their life,"Jennifer says. "It’s our job to give them dreams."

On a precipice above the church in a warren of shacks lives one of the Kamaris’ own dreams — an orphan called Nshutiraguma, 15.

He comes to find them in a foster mother’s home one afternoon. He’s run from his Grade 3 class in search of a pen: The only one he owns has run dry. Nshuti arrived at Vivante in January 2007, not knowing his last name or remembering if he’d ever had a family. He began asking for school fees. He was one of the dirtiest kids Jennifer had ever seen.

"He had absolutely no schooling. He had no idea how to even hold a pen," she recalls.

But he passed Grade 1 exams while living on the street. Impressed, they found him a foster home. Last year, he graduated Grade 2, third of 75 kids.

Jennifer thinks he’ll be the first of the street kids to go to university.

"He dreams of being a pilot one day, which is the biggest dream we have ever heard. Somehow we have to be here to see him through."

eoconnor@png.canwest.com

How to help

To learn more about International Team Canada’s work or to get involved, visit http://www.iteams.ca.

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