Ramshackle but welcoming - the Cape Town home away from home for migrant kids

2015-09-10 18:58


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Cape Town - Samuel, 19, was on the move for almost a decade. When civil war broke out in his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, his family had to escape.

In the chaos of the flight, Samuel was separated from his parents. Alone, he crossed the border into Zambia and then fled further to Angola and Namibia until he finally arrived in South Africa.

The trek took him about nine years.

"It seemed everything had collapsed," the reserved teenager says about his journey, which he started at the age of about six and remembers only in patches.

For the past five years, Samuel has been living at Lawrence House, a children's home in Cape Town, that houses unaccompanied, abandoned and orphaned migrant children.  

Samuel lives in the former convent with 24 other boys and girls from countries like Somalia, Rwanda, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

For the first time since he left Congo, he has a place to stay where he receives care, access to education and healthcare but also to therapeutic, developmental and legal services.

"It almost feels like a real home," Samuel says, while paging through a library book. The six child and youth care workers at Lawrence House feel much more like parents than supervisors, he adds.

Lawrence House is a ramshackle building with high ceilings, long corridors and creaky floorboards. The tiny bedrooms, which are shared by two or three children, are sparsely furnished. But the atmosphere is warm, the children visibly happy.

"We want to provide a sense of belonging and identity," says director Giulia Treves. "The children are uprooted. We want to create a place where they regain their condition as a child."

The life of a migrant is incredibly tough. The psychological effects of being an abandoned child migrant even tougher.

When children first arrive at Lawrence House, most are in survival mode and suffer from post-traumatic stress, explains Treves. Many are undernourished. Some have experienced sexual violence or abuse on their journey.

On top of that, unaccompanied migrant children suffer emotionally due to early abandonment.

Lawrence House, which opened in 2005, is one of very few facilities in South Africa and on the continent that offer services tailored to migrant children without legal guardians.

There are no statistics for how many unaccompanied migrant minors arrive in South Africa every year - immigration authorities do not systematically record single children. But Treves says she receives enquiries every week.

Most children are turned away because Lawrence House's 25 beds are pretty much always taken.

Like Samuel, tens of thousands of African migrants decide to travel southwards, as opposed to fleeing north through the Sahara to Europe.

South Africa is a major destination for migrants and already home to more than 300 000 asylum seekers and refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Apart from being one of the continent's richest economies, South Africa is attractive because of its modern laws that give asylum seekers immediate right to work and study, freedom of movement and access to basic social services.

There are, however, major legal gaps when it comes to unaccompanied migrant children.

Without a legal guardian, there is no option to document a migrant child, explains Marilize Ackermann, advocacy officer at the Scalabrini Centre, a non-profit organization in Cape Town that specializes in legal services for refugees and migrants.

"Unaccompanied migrant children are protected under the Children's Act in South Africa, but remain undocumented," Ackermann says.

As soon as they reach adulthood at the age of 18, they are deemed undocumented and can be deported. Most are forced to return to countries they have no connection with and hardly even a memory of.

One of the many migrant children who might soon enter this legal limbo is Jose from Angola, who is about to turn 18.

Jose has been living at Lawrence House for the past 10 years, after spending some time at a refugee shelter. He has no recollection of his early childhood in Angola and hardly speaks Portuguese.

"Everyone I know is in South Africa. I could imagine to visit Angola one day, but not to live there," he says.

The possibility of forced deportation clashes with all plans for his future, including studying graphic design in South Africa.

"Preparing kids to exit can be very traumatic," says Treves. "It's nonsense what's happening."

But her hands are tied.

Read more on:    cape town  |  migrants

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