Safe Childhood Center is A refuge in the storms of childhood [Archives:2004/737/Community]

May 13 2004
Homeless child after waking up on a street in Sanaa (Yemen Times photo by Peter Willems)
Homeless child after waking up on a street in Sanaa (Yemen Times photo by Peter Willems)
By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

It was midnight in the capital. A white, unmarked van patrolled slowly and cautiously the neighborhoods. Three men inside attentively searched in every nook and cranny on quiet sidestreets and alleys. By 1:30 a.m. the van was packed full, and heading back to it's Sana'a base.
These were not officers searching for suspects or criminals roaming the street at night. They were employees from the Safe Childhood Center out to offer homeless children a safe, comfortable place to sleep.
The 11 children taken to the center that night, who were between nine and 12 years old, were found sleeping in what could be considered makeshift bedrooms. Most were lying on pieces of cardboard boxes with tattered blankets or old burlap sacks used to protect themselves from the cold.
“We go out to help them at least once a week,” said Wadah Shugaa Al-Deen, Deputy Director and Financial Manager at Safe Childhood Center who was part of the team out that night. “We never force them to come to the center. Instead we offer to take them, asking if they want a place to sleep and have good food in the morning. These are things they do not have.”
The most recent study carried out by United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Ministry of Social Affairs showed that there are approximately 28,000 homeless children in Yemen, with 4,000 in the capital. Unlike many children working during the day and going back home at night, these children have no home to return to.
According to Al-Deen, there are different reasons why children end up living on the street. It ranges from children leaving villages and coming to the cities to earn a living to children who come from unstable families full of violence and abuse.
“It is very difficult to live on the street. But if some prefer to live on the street instead of living at home, there must be something very bad at home,” said Al-Deen.
One child at the center was beaten regularly by his father. The father also aimed his gun at his son and threatened to kill him. Another child was a victim of rejection. His mother left her husband, claiming he was crazy, and moved in with her family. Her family refused to accept her son, so the child decided to live on the street instead of staying with his unstable father.
The Safe Childhood Center, established a little over two years ago, is the only shelter for homeless children in Sana'a. The center has an open-door policy: Homeless children can come and have healthy meals and a place to sleep with the freedom to come and go as they please.
It also provides schooling – since most are lacking in basic education and are illiterate – vocational training, healthcare, and the staff works with the children to be able to integrate fully into society.
Along with offering a safe place for homeless children on a daily basis, the center focuses on trying to get the children back home if possible. Its social workers research both the children and their families in specific cases to learn if they can live with their families again. If it is not possible, the center can house them permanently.
“At the center, they learn about the problems of a child,” said Afrah Al-Ahmadi, Head of Health and Social Protection Unit at the Social Fund for Development, which offers financial and technical assistance to the center.
“The goal is to send the child back to the family. But if problems continue to develop in the family and it is not suitable for the child, the final solution is for the child to stay at the center.”
The Social Fund has plans to continue to develop the program. Ongoing training for the staff will continue, and consultants from NGOs dealing with homeless children in other Arab countries will come to assist in the training process.
“The center has a committed staff and the team is very sincere,” said Al-Ahmadi. “It applies a flexible management system and has had a good start with the knowledge on how to deal with issues. We will continue to build on what has been done while learning from experience.”
The program is also in the process of expanding. Last year, a center was established in Aden, and it has plans to open centers in Taiz and Hodeidah in the near future. The center in Sana'a will move to a new and larger building in six months which will increase the number of beds from 30 to 100. After the move, the center will be able to develop two separate facilities – one for children staying for a short period while the other will be for those who will stay permanently – and it is planning to set up facilities for homeless girls.
But what the Safe Children Center needs is more support. Most of its help comes from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Social Fund and Al-Shariqa Associates, an NGO out of the United Arab Emirates.
Recently, the responsibility of paying salaries for the staff at the center moved from the ministry to the Sana'a province during the government's decentralization process. The governate has not come up with the money to cover salaries since last December. Al-Shariqa has agreed to provide salaries for the last four months, but a long-term solution must be found.
“The center has a dedicated staff, but if it doesn't get the support, the center will have the risk of losing its staff,” said Al-Ahmadi. “The center is at risk and needs a solution.”
Al-Ahmadi added that not only will increasing the number of employees during expansion require more funding, but the center is in need of more social workers.
“The social workers try to understand problems of children, learn to know about the families, contact the families, assess the situation and so forth,” said Al-Ahmadi. “Now we only have a few cases to deal with because we have so few social workers.”
But even though there is a funding problem, the van from the center continues to go out and offer comfort to children sleeping on the streets.
“Some of the children didn't trust us when we found them on the street because they have had bad experiences with strangers, someone they knew or a family member,” said Al-Deen. “But, over time, many of them got to know us. Now, when we mention Safe Childhood Center, they are happy we are there and want to go to the center.”