Is there such a thing as a 'good orphanage'?

Bethany, a WDR volunteer, recently attended a conference run by Lumos, an organisation committed to seeing children brought up in families rather than orphanages. In this blog, Bethany shares some of the thoughts and discussions from the event.

Recently, a group of leaders representing various agencies from across Ireland, gathered together under Comhlámh’s Orphanage Working Group (OWG). Comhlámh is an organisation which supports development workers and volunteers. The aim of the day was to discover the truths and effects of institutionalised care and discuss issues around trafficking and ‘voluntourism’. I was there representing Irish Methodist World Development & Relief (WDR). Although WDR does not support orphanages, it wishes to stimulate thought and opinion around this difficult, yet important, issue.

The morning began with each group sharing their own experiences working with institutions such as orphanages.  For years, many Irish-based agencies have been sending thousands of volunteers to meet and help with orphaned children in developing countries. In countries afflicted by conflict and violence there has been a huge rise in the number of orphaned children and orphanages may seem like a viable and quick solution, offering respite for struggling parents, food and a roof over their heads. In recent years, it has come to light the reality of what goes on in many of these institutions and the effects of some short-term volunteer schemes. Generations of children have been raised who have been deeply damaged by these experiences. 

Lumos   is an NGO founded by J.K. Rowling. Working to end the harm of institutionalisation & help children worldwide be reunited with family.

Lumos is an NGO founded by J.K. Rowling. Working to end the harm of institutionalisation & help children worldwide be reunited with family.

We had the opportunity to hear examples of these realities from Michael who works for an organisation called Lumos. Lumos was founded by the famous author J.K. Rowling when she read an alarming article about the conditions of children living in institutions. The name Lumos is derived from her well know book series Harry Potter, where it refers to a light-giving spell, in the hope that light can be brought to these children. Lumos has the goal of ending institutionalised care globally by 2050 and is paving the way for others to make this shift.

Michael openly shared some heart-breaking stories and rather shocking statistics. A study by Save the Children (2009) discovered that, while there are over eight million children living in orphanages, up to 80% of these children are not actually orphans and do have a living parent or relative. Studies on children who spend their lives in orphanages have shown that they are more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and trafficking. Even with the best-intentioned staff, orphanages are environments where children grow up without a parental figure Research shows that they are more likely to have cognitive and developmental delays, attachment and mental health issues and a lack of social skills. They are less prepared to integrate as full members of society and 1 in 5 become involved in crime, 1 in 7 in prostitution and with 1 in 10 committing suicide.  At first, when Lumos said “There is no such thing as a good orphanage”, we were quick to query such an extreme generalisation but quickly the orphanages myths of social good and being cost-effective solutions were destroyed, bringing us to consider a new and better solution.

I felt compelled by these findings to think about those thousands of volunteers who travel to all corners of the world seeking an experience of working in an orphanage. Such teams, short-term visits and gap years seem like the perfect way to experience other cultures and serve God by looking after his children, but do travellers know what really happens behind closed doors? Can they see ahead to the long-term effects and what might happen to those children as they become adults?

Unfortunately, everything is not always as it seems. ‘Voluntourism’ is giving incentive to many orphanages to treat their children as a business opportunity (attracting paying foreigners) and is driving family break up in poor countries (as parents pass their children over to institutions in order to cope with poverty).

These realities can be disheartening but there is hope. Hope that, despite these circumstances, there are other and better solutions. As a church invested in world development, we cannot just abandon children without appropriate and equipped carers. Rather we need to be part of developing better alternatives. There are so many other ways children can be supported through family-based care including reuniting them with families, adoption, foster care or kinship support. WDR would favour such approaches, seeking justice for these children and their families and placing them in safe and loving environments. 

Leaving the conference, I felt enlightened and challenged to share what I had learned. Each of these children is known and loved by God. As a people who strive to make his love known to them, I hope that our pursuit of justice leads us to abandon notions of ‘voluntourism’ and to support long-term family-based solutions sharing the light of God with each one of these eight million children around the world.

WDR volunteer Bethany

WDR volunteer Bethany


Palestine’s Forgotten Refugees in Lebanon

Our last blog “Could you dumb that down for me please?” asked us all to consider going beneath the surface of difficult issues in order to more fully understand them so that we are more able to develop informed opinions and respond appropriately. This blog, written by Stephen McCloskey, invites us to do exactly that. There may be some readers who have a different perspective from the author and hopefully this encourages helpful debate.

Irish Methodist World Development & Relief has partners in both Palestine and Lebanon and so hopes for a better future for all people in these lands. The situation for Palestinians is heartbreaking. May peaceful solutions be found; quickly.

Stephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education, a development non-governmental organisation based in Belfast. He is editor of Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, an online, open access, peer reviewed journal. He is co-editor of From the Local to the Global: Key Issues in Development Studies (Pluto Press, 2015). He manages education projects for young people in the Gaza Strip and writes regularly on a range of development issues for books, journals and online publications.

How massive cuts by the US administration to the budget of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency will exacerbate an already marginal existence for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

 The Nakba

Seventy years ago 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly removed from their homeland in what they describe as the Nakba (Catastrophe) and, today, they and their descendants are part of a diaspora of 5.3 million refugees most of whom live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem.  According to the United Nations, there are 504,000 registered Palestinian refugees living in 12 camps in Lebanon but only between 260,000 and 280,000 remain in-country. These refugees are mostly forgotten and ignored by the world’s media, living a marginal existence in a country already hosting nearly one million refugees, most of whom have fled the war in neighbouring Syria.   

One of these refugees is Yehya Fawzi Abu Hishmeh from Sabra who is 83 and was twelve years old when his family was forced to flee their home and business by a Jewish militia.  He showed me title deeds and plans to his family home in Haifa and a quarry that provided them with a comfortable life.  He made an arduous, traumatic journey North to Lebanon with his family carrying whatever possessions they could manage, believing that one day they would return to Haifa.  Now elderly and infirm, unable to leave the apartment he shares with his daughter, his eyes well up as he recounts the fateful night 70 years ago when he was forced to flee.

83 year-old Yehya Fawzi Abu Hishmeh points to the plans of the home he was forced to flee as a 12-year old boy in 1948.

83 year-old Yehya Fawzi Abu Hishmeh points to the plans of the home he was forced to flee as a 12-year old boy in 1948.

 Foreigner status

The Palestinian community in Lebanon has been stuck in a hellish limbo since 1948 with the disconnected refugee camps now made of a more permanent cement rather than tents but the poverty is no less severe.  Palestinian refugees have never been naturalised in Lebanon and are subjected to sub-citizenship levels of social and economic marginalisation.  According to UNHCR(United Nations High Commission for Refugees), Palestinians are denied access to 36 professions including medicine, farming, fishery and public transportation which forces them into ‘menial, low-paying jobs in the informal sector’.  They are also prohibited from owning and transferring property which denies them a foothold in Lebanese society and the opportunity to improve the lives of future generations.  

A wall mural in Burj Barajneh refugee camp, Beirut. (Stephen McCloskey, all rights reserved).

A wall mural in Burj Barajneh refugee camp, Beirut. (Stephen McCloskey, all rights reserved).

UNHCR found that Palestinians receive lower salaries than Lebanese nationals in the same occupations suggesting discrimination in the workplace and exploitation by employers of the high unemployment rate among refugees. With Palestinians subjected to a perpetual ‘foreigner’ status in Lebanon despite their lengthy residency, a 2010 survey of Palestinian refugees found that just 37 percent of the working-age population was employed and just 6 percent of the labour force in university training.  The same survey reported that two-thirds of the Palestinian refugee population was poor (living on less than $6 a day), one-third had a chronic illness and four percent had a ‘functional disability’.    

High levels of unemployment in a socially deprived environment has resulted in severe mental health problems with the same survey finding that 21 percent of respondents had experienced ‘depression, anxiety or distress’.  

Cuts to UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency)

Two issues have compounded and exacerbated the poverty endured by Palestinians in Lebanon.  

Burj Barajneh Refugee Camp (Stephen McCloskey, all rights reserved).

Burj Barajneh Refugee Camp (Stephen McCloskey, all rights reserved).

The first is an estimated 40,000 Palestinian refugees from the war in Syria, most of whom have taken refuge in the camps operated by the UN in Lebanon.  This has placed greater pressure on camp services, schools, clinics and housing, as well as creating tension within the camps between Palestinian refugees from Syria and Lebanon.  The second key issue is the withdrawal of funding by the Trump administration in the United States from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency established in 1948 to provide for the welfare of Palestinian refugees.  The US normally provides one-third of UNRWA’s total annual budget of $1.2 billionand this funding cut has already forced UNRWA to axe 250 jobsin the West Bank and Gaza and, represents an ‘existential threat’ to the future of the agency which is operating with a deficit of $256 million.  UNRWA is a permanent reminder to the world of the 70-year Palestinian right to return to their homeland.  By targeting UNRWA, the US appears to be simultaneously aiming to remove the Palestinian right to return and revoke their refugee status.  At a time of deepening poverty in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, the threat to their status and welfare has never been greater. Many Palestinians pass from one generation to the next the original key to the homes they were forced to abandon in 1948.  The key is at once a symbol of their dispossession and right to return.  The malicious use of aid cuts by the US is unlikely to persuade the Palestinians, who have endured 70 years of endemic poverty, to abandon what they consider as their birth right to return home.

BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions)

As it was Israel that dispossessed Palestinians of their land, homes and livelihoods in 1948 and prevents the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state today, a call was launched in 2005 for international support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.  Created by Palestinian civil society and modelled on the anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa, BDS is a non-violent, vibrant and truly global movement for freedom, justice and equality in Palestine.  BDS urges action to pressure Israel to respect international law and is supported by trade unions, churches, academics and grassroots movements across the world.  Many believe that supporting BDS will hasten an end to the marginalised life of the Palestinian refugee and build support for an internationally recognised Palestinian state.  In recognising parallels between apartheid South Africa and the unjust treatment of Palestinians by Israel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has joined the call for support of BDS suggesting that:

“Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of normalcy in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo”.

BDS is one way in which people can seek change for the sake of these Palestinian refugees and those still living in Palestine. 

Could you dumb that down for me please?

If anyone missed it, the United Kingdom is currently trying to extract itself from the European Union i.e. Brexit. This has been one of the most contentious national issues in the UK, ever. No one seems to understand what Brexit will mean for UK citizens. In mid-November, a draft withdrawal agreement (between the UK and EU) was presented by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May. The media tried to help us understand the document’s contents.

If we really want to understand what is on offer, we could read the document but we’re just not going to do that, are we? It is 585 pages long, will contain big words, stuff that goes right over our heads and many particular elements that don’t interest us. At the end of the day, most of us want a nice bite-sized summary that gives us the gist of what is going on. However, in reducing a 585-page document, the media is bound to dumb things down a bit and we end up not getting the full story, creating our own ‘fake knowledge’ and, despite our good intentions, not actually understanding the situation fully at all.

Recently, I was visiting Dabane Water Workshops (WDR partner) in Zimbabwe. What an impressive outfit they are; working with local people to access water and address broader water management issues and livelihoods in rural areas. One conversation with Stephen Hussey, the Director, stays with me.

Why is there water scarcity in parts of Zimbabwe? If you were standing by the riverbanks as I had been, the answer would seem obvious; there is no water in the rivers because the rains are seasonal and when rivers do flow, they may only flow for a few days. That’s the simple answer or the ‘dumbed down’ answer, if you like. It seems to make perfect sense, satisfies a superficial interest or concern and can be used to give rise to some simple (dumbed down?) opinions, even solutions.

The Mahwanke River in September

The Mahwanke River in September

When Stephen and I discussed why there was water scarcity where these people lived, his answer was much more complex. Indeed, rains are sporadic and inconsistent. Why? Well, the changing rainfall patterns, he sees as part of the documented global climate change. Immediately, any long-term solution is now going to need to address that massive problem and it involves governments and their policy making, not just a local water project on the Mahwanke River. So why don’t people move nearer more reliable water sources? Where they are now, may be the only land they have as a result of colonialists taking the better irrigated and productive land. So now we’re into colonial history and land rights. How are these factors, perhaps defined centuries ago, addressed justly? That question brings in national and local leadership. Let’s not forget tribalism. And then there is the question around why countries like Zimbabwe don’t have the wherewithal to sort out these problems. Yes, there has been corruption and leadership deficiencies but there is also a global economy dominated by the rich West. It is extremely difficult for developing countries to get a foothold in international markets, get fair deals and benefit sufficiently in order to improve the lot of their citizens.

Tim listening to Stephen outside the Dabane offices

Tim listening to Stephen outside the Dabane offices

 So why have people in Matabeleland been struggling to access sufficient water? It’s complicated and, therefore, the solutions are not straightforward.

Many of us are genuinely concerned about the plight of the materially poor. But we mustn’t be lazy in trying to understand the “Why?” and the “How can we best respond?”. Let us commit to going a little deeper in our understanding of people’s suffering so that we can get more fully behind good potential solutions or lobby for necessary change to happen.

And was that the full explanation of why some people in Zimbabwe do not have access to water? No. It’s even more complicated than that. I dumbed it down a bit so we could all try to understand it a little better. Sorry about that…