Not all among us are born under the lucky stars. Unfortunate instances in life place children under alternative care like in children’s homes and other child care institutions. Since a roof is provided to shelter them, one may think that they will be cared for. This may be the case for now, but this protection might not be a permanent feature throughout their lives as these children grow into adults. What many remain oblivious to is the fact that there often comes a time when children receiving alternative care are abruptly shoved into the world outside and are forced to face the future alone.
Upon reaching age18, youth who have been receiving shelter and protection from child care institutions are often compelled by law to leave alternative care. This becomes a ‘ready or not, out you go’ kind of situation for these youth. They face numerous socio-economic and psycho-emotional issues as they try to make the transition from alternative care to independent living. This sudden push in to society has made such youth face many social challenges that hinder their potential of leading a stable independent life. Just like other 18-year-olds, these youth are no different and require support, advice and guidance. When they are deprived of these they fall into a trench of darkness. This has become a great issue in the country that hasn’t been addressed.
SOS Children’s Villages Sri Lanka recently organized a speak out session where several youth shared their experiences of leaving alternative care at the age of 18. The effort behind this initiative was to make these youth heard, seen and recognized as an equal citizen with equal rights. This event was held to raise awareness regarding the plight of youth after reaching the age of 18. The organizers of the session have hope of accentuating the need to establish a proper mechanism and strengthen the framework of the system that provides for children leaving alternative care.
I remember every instance that I applied for a job. All the other candidates would bring along a file. But what I brought along was my travelling bag because I was homeless
Four youths related their life stories at the speak out session. Their stories, full of emotions, brought tears to those in the audience. These stories were eye-openers to everyone. They highlighted how the youth struggled to step out from the protection of alternative care to the unprotected world outside. Not everyone who leaves alternative care are blessed with a four-leafed clover. Many don’t share these happy endings and their voices go unheard. That is why Akash Moses, Shashikala Shivarasra, Nimali Sriyakanthi Kumari and Iresha Dilhani have stepped forward and shared their stories about leaving alternative care, They don’t want sympathy, but wish to speak on behalf of youth to bring to light the unhappy plight of those who are unable to open a happy chapter in their lives after leaving alternative care.
Akash Moses, now a youth rights activist and creator of the ‘Voice for the voiceless’ foundation, started his life journey at a children’s home in Kandy. Having been abandoned by his parents two weeks after birth, Akash had to lead a tough childhood that made him face many challenges and encounter barriers. But that didn’t stop him from producing the best O’ Level results, while in school. “My school life was a difficult time. I was labelled as an ‘orphaned child’. But despite all the challenges, I was able to pass my O’ Levels, getting the best results in my school. But during my A’ Levels, I faced a lot of challenging situations I couldn’t bear. Some situations I faced, which involved my teachers, were unbearable. I couldn’t erase them from my memories. So I decided to stop my education,”he reminisced.
And from the time I boarded the bus, the police took out my personal file and started scolding and blaming me. What was my fault?
Akash related the feeling of being alone and helpless after leaving the children’s home at the age of 18. He was clueless as to what to do with his life. Suddenly spurred by the determination to win in life, he headed out to Colombo in search of employment. “I remember every instance that I applied for a job. All the other candidates would bring along a file with their certificates and qualifications. But what I brought along was my travelling bag because I was homeless. If I got the job, I planned to utilize the accommodation facilities facilitated by the job. Otherwise I would take my travelling bag and go to the next interview.” he said. He had been taken in by a Pasteur and brought up at his residence for 7 years.
But Akash highlighted the fact that the identity associated with having been brought up at an orphanage clings to him no matter how further he progresses in life. Fighting tears he pointed out that all this was due to his birth certificate being an empty in sections where they mattered most. He said that the society has considered all these reasons before judging him and eventually being disrespectful of him. “This is the piece of paper that determined my fate after turning 18,” he said, holding up his birth certificate. “I don’t know my father’s name let alone the fact whether my parents were married. This piece of paper enabled the society to decide what I was to become. This decided the respect I would receive from society” he questioned.
I wanted to reach my targets and move forward faster. Amidst disapproval, I came to Colombo where I attended my first class in the graphic designing diploma
Akash created the foundation titled ‘Voice for the voiceless’ through which he has been able to touch and change the lives of many children for the better. Through this foundation he has helped built several schools and preschools that provide educational facilities, shelter and protection to children who are victims of child abuse. Recalling the recent flood disaster, Akash was able to lend a helping hand to a crowd comprising 78,000 people and helped 29,000 families. He works hard to be the voice of socially abused children and is currently following a diploma in child psychology.
He beseeched the relevant authorities to change the concept of judging people by their birth certificates. He also pleaded with the public to not look down or discriminate those coming from children’s homes.
It’s a misconception to assume that all the children placed under alternative care are disowned by parents. Some have been placed in children’s homes due to the demise of parents while some have been brought there as their families can’t afford to raise children due to financial difficulties. There are children who have fallen victim to child abuse. Children who lost their homes during the war, striving to survive, also seek alternative care. Shashikala Shivarasra’s story is one among many.
Due to the war in the country, Shashikala’s house had been burnt down. Every young heart harbours a dream. her dream was to become a math teacher. “Because of my situation I always doubted about my dream becoming a reality. I couldn’t imagine going to school as my father didn’t have a permanent job and couldn’t bear the expenses for my education. But in order to achieve my dream I had to receive an education. So I came to the Jaffna SOS village. There I saw that there were many others who shared a similar fate. I studied for my O’ Levels there,”said Shashikala.
I couldn’t imagine going to school as my father didn’t have a permanent job and couldn’t bear the expenses for my education. But in order to achieve my dream I had to receive an education
Despite all barriers, she passed her exams and qualified to sit for the A’ Levels. She went on to gain admission to the university. But at the age of 18 she had to leave the SOS village. “I was burdened with my own thoughts. If I had to leave the village, how would I ever attend university? I thought that my life’s purpose was over. But the SOS village supported and funded me through the organization and thus helped me to continue my studies,”she recalled.
Fulfilling one’s dream brings immense satisfaction. Shashikala had this kind of experience. She accentuated that until 18, children will receive care in some way. But once you reach 18 years of age, the case is different. “No one cares once you are 18. A lot of people even avoided us. We had to move forward on our own,”she said.
When a child is deprived of parental care, getting placed in alternative care doesn’t bring an end to his or her troubles. There are many inconveniences that a child has to face even at the time of receiving care. Nimali Sriyakanthi Kumari’s life story explicits some of the hardships and the discrimination she experienced after coming from a children’s home.
Nimali works at Sarvodaya Suwasetha institution. But 17 years ago she was raised at a children’s home in Kandy. Being a mischievous little child when young, Nimali remembered being shifted to a different children’s home in Nuwara Eliya. She was 14 years old then.
She recalled the manner in which she was escorted to the children’s home in Nuwara Eliya. “I was taken to the home in Nuwara Eliya with a policeman and policewoman in uniform and in a public bus. I was unable to comprehend the looks I was given by the passengers back then, but a realization has dawned now. And from the time I boarded the bus, the police took out my personal file and started scolding and blaming me. What was my fault? I didn’t come to a children’s home due to my fault. When these things happen, they fade away your dreams and and ruin your aspirations. I am not saddened by this now. But I would like to make a point that has to be brought to attention because these things still happen,”said Nimali.
Later she was transferred to Sarvodaya Children’s home and sent to school. But she was summoned to court every 6 months. She was frustrated. Few months before the O’ Levels she had been banned from school. Even for the slightest mistake, children under alternative care were scolded and criticized. Nimali has also recorded some of her songs on CD. This just goes to show that every child is special in his or her own way and posses many talents. But Nimali was deprived of following her passion for music during her A’ Levels and she had no other choice, but to pursue other subjects.
At the age of 21, Nimali was forced to think about her future. As she had always frequented the courts, she had been inspired to become a lawyer. But life doesn’t always go exactly as planned. She lost her will to become a lawyer. “At the final court hearing, the lawyer valued my life to be Rs. 25,000. I was so taken aback. After years of suffering, the lawyer only valued my life to be Rs.25,000. So I didn’t want to be a lawyer thereafter. I took to media. Through a scholarship I went to India to follow journalism in mass media and returned to the island with a first class degree,”recalled Nimali.
Armed with a media qualification, Nimali aspires to be the most talented crime reporter in the country. On a final note, Nimali stressed that she wanted to be the voice behind the children and make their plies heard. The effectiveness and positive impact of such programs were highlighted through Iresha Dilhani’s success story.
Iresha is the proud owner of her own graphic design institute, named Print Forest. Her tale explains that when you set your mind on achieving your goals with sheer determination and will power, you will definitely get there.
At the age of 2, Iresha came to the SOS Children’s Village. There she lived with her little SOS family that included a mother, 2 younger brothers, a big brother and a little sister. Iresha’s school life was dotted with achievements and awards. Like everyone else Iresha too had a dream.
“My dream was to be a graphic designer and own my own printing institute. Along with 2 fellow brothers from the SOS village, we printed a book titled ‘Little One Short Stories. That was the first step I took towards achieving my dream. After having passed the O’ Levels I didn’t want to do A’ Levels. I wanted to reach my targets and move forward faster. Amidst disapproval, I came to Colombo where I attended my first class in the graphic designing diploma. I was awarded with a bronze medal in my higher diploma and today I am proud to be the owner of Print Forest, my own graphic design institute,” said Iresha, breaking in to tears of happiness.
Iresha pointed out that unlike other children’s homes and places of alternative care, the SOS Villages didn’t just drop them into society. They were shifted to girls’ home youth villages and boys’ home youth villages. Here they entered an environment different from that of a family. “We were gradually trained how to behave in society and how to face interviews. We were given opportunities to practice a lot. This was a great asset to us.
What I would like to suggest other homes is to implement similar programs and mechanisms which will help guide children to better adapt to the society,”opined Iresha.
Each of these life stories shared depict that one’s own fate can be changed by one’s actions, given there is enough will power. But no matter how hard a person strives to change his or her fate, they will always be held back by the demon named social stigmatization in the inexplicable world we live in. These negatives lead to the questioning of human decency. So it’s high time that these issues receive attention and solutions are provided so that the world can change for the better.
Pics by: Waruna Wanniarachchi