Street youth in Lubumbashi: fighting for a future

VIA Don Bosco
04 September 2018
Eric Meert and Cécile Pichon are two inspiring people with very different backgrounds. Their paths crossed in DR Congo, where they work together to help street children. We had the opportunity to conduct an interview with them during their short visit to Belgium.

Eric Meert is a Flemish Salesian who has been active as a missionary in DR Congo for 40 years. He coordinates a network of shelters and schools aimed at street children in Lubumbashi. Thanks to these centers, nearly 600 children are taken care of every year. VIA Don Bosco also contributes to this project by supporting the schools when it comes to vocational training and employment.

Cécile Pichon has worked as a volunteer for the Salesians in Lubumbashi for the past three years. She put her many years of experience in international cooperation at the service of the schools and street children. Read their hopeful account of a hard reality.


How do children in Lubumbashi end up on the streets?

Eric Meert: There are several reasons. Divorce is one of them, as children often end up in blended families where they are not accepted by their stepmother or stepfather. They are then sent to an uncle or aunt, which does not always end well either, so they end up on the streets. Another reason is poverty. For example, there was a 16-year-old boy who still had to sleep in the same room as his parents because they only had one room, so he ended up on the streets. But the largest group of street children (almost 60 percent) are those accused of witchcraft.

The largest group of street children (almost 60 percent) are those accused of witchcraft.

Eric Meert

Eric Meert talks with a street child
© Via Don Bosco

Why are these children accused of witchcraft?

Eric Meert: We call them economic ‘child witches’. For example, when the father of the family dies, the father’s brother is expected to take the children into his family. If the brother happens to lose his job at that moment, people blame it on the arrival of the children and accuse them of witchcraft. Another example: a 10-year-old boy who still wets his bed can also be rejected and accused of witchcraft sometimes.

Cécile Pichon: The problem of child witches is a relatively recent phenomenon. Many families are facing difficulties because of the country’s poor economic situation, which helps such superstitions gain ground.

Eric Meert: The number of street children has indeed increased due to the bad economic situation. A recent count has shown that the number of children who sleep on the streets at night has doubled compared to 10 or 12 years ago. Some children who live in rural areas try to reach Lubumbashi by crawling on a train. They undertake this dangerous journey because they believe living in a metropolis will increase their survival chances, but it sometimes results in fatal accidents.


Is it mainly boys who live on the streets, or also girls?

Eric Meert: There are fewer girls than boys on the streets, but their situation is often more distressing. They often end up in prostitution, with all the consequences that entails. We currently accommodate ninety girls in our shelters, and about forty of them have AIDS.


How does Don Bosco help street children?

Eric Meert: The reception consists of several phases. We go around at night to make the children aware that a life on the street offers no future prospects. All children living on the streets are welcome in our centre 'Bakanja Ville' to wash themselves and their clothes. We then select from this group. We start by asking the children a number of general questions in order to get to know them. After that, we invite them to come back. When they do come back, that is a sign for us that they are really motivated to stop living on the streets. We therefore allow them to sleep in our centre. Right now, we accommodate some forty children between 6 and 17 years old. We then leave them alone for two weeks, so that they can decide for themselves who to confide in. This is followed by a conversation with a social assistant, who writes down their story. The children tell their own story of how they ended up on the streets. It is also important to find out about their family.


Why is the information on their family so important?

Eric Meert: We only accommodate children who are still in contact with their family. Family reunification is important in our way of working. If young people are unable to rejoin a family after completing their education, there is a high risk that they will end up on the streets again. It is impossible for us to continue to accommodate them because new street children are constantly arriving in our centre. I still dream of creating a boarding school with a focus on adoption for children who have lost all contact with their family, so that they can look for work at their own pace after graduating. For the time being, however, we unfortunately have to refer these children to other centers.

Every year, we do about 2,500 family visits and reunite some 300 children with their families, only ten percent of whom will some day end up on the streets again.

Eric Meert

So how do you proceed with those who still have family ties?

Eric Meert: We first ask them if we can contact their family. During the first visit, we ask the parents why their child ended up on the streets. The parents’ story often does not correspond with that of the child. The social assistant tries to come to a conclusive story. Then we ask if the child can come home for one Saturday, which most families accept. When the child has done that a couple of times, we ask the parents if it can stay overnight. After a few nights at home, the next step is a full week during the school holidays. And the last step is that children go back to their families permanently. Afterwards, we make a series of follow-up visits to ensure that the situation remains stable. Every year, we do about 2,500 family visits and reunite some 300 children with their families, only ten percent of whom will some day end up on the streets again.


Another essential part of your way of working is school attendance.

Eric Meert: Once a child is allowed to go back to his family, we ask if it can go to school. Children of parents who are unable to pay the school fees can go to our centre 'Bakanja Centre', where 300 children are currently studying. Parents still pay a symbolic contribution to make them responsible for the education of their children.

 

Can late teenagers also come to you?

Eric Meert: They are welcome in our centers for a vocational training. We also work together with employment agencies that guide young graduates when they enter the labour market by looking for internships and work. That works well. Several young people have found a job this way.

 

The vocational training centers and the employment agencies for street youth are supported by VIA Don Bosco. Why are these centers so important?

Cécile Pichon: Vocational training is essential to help young people, especially those who have been abandoned or have lived on the streets. Often, these young people have barely been to school. Vocational training gives them the skills they need to find a job and build a future. Without education, these young people would have no chance in life.

The added value of VIA Don Bosco’s programme is not only that it helps street children, but also that it aims to achieve truly sustainable centers, so that they are able to continue their work in the long run.

Cécile Pichon

Cecile Pichon sits next to two street children.
© Via Don Bosco

What are the main needs of the centers supported by VIA Don Bosco?

Cécile Pichon: The programme enables us to improve education and adapt it to the needs of the labour market. It is also essential to improve the management of schools, which are usually located in houses with a social vocation and receive little help. We need to assist them to diversify their income and reduce their financial dependence. The added value of VIA Don Bosco’s programme is not only that it helps street children, but also that it aims to achieve truly sustainable centers, so that they are able to continue their work in the long run.


What has you touched most over the years?

Eric Meert: I learned that you may never abandon a young person. Some cases can be very difficult: we have had boys stealing in the centers, relapsing and ending up on the streets again. But they can always get back to us. We give them a second, third, fourth or even fifth chance. Every new opportunity can be the right one. That is what drives us to continue working with these young people day after day.

VIA Don Bosco

Don Bosco is a recognised Belgian NGO that supports education and youth employment in Africa and Latin America. For more than 45 years, we have been providing pedagogical and financial support to local schools. Our projects focus on the development of social and professional skills among disadvantaged young people. In this way, we help them to become active global citizens and to find a place on the labour market, all while building bridges between schools in Belgium and elsewhere in the world. VIA Don Bosco is working towards a just society that meets the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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About the same theme - Article 7 /9 A healthy environment for future generations