As part of a plan to make Rwanda "orphanage-free," this central African nation plans to close the doors of its largest and oldest orphanage to children over three years old. And while officials say the children will be placed in safe host families, orphans say strangers or families that abandoned them will not take care of them.
The room is tense, but when called upon to pray, the teenage orphans sing out. They have just been told that their home, the Noel Nyundo Orphanage will be downsizing. About 450 children over three years old will be placed in families. For many with no known relatives, that means with strangers.
Teens speak out
After the announcement, the teens looked pensive. At the Noel, children have food, shelter, friends and the chance to go to school. For orphans in one of the world’s poorest countries, this is a lot to lose.
The officials sat down, giving the children a chance to speak. One by one, the teens stood up and expressed their fears. Officials listened carefully, taking notes.
One boy said in families they will not be treated like sons or daughters - they will be treated like servants. A girl pointed out that her family abandoned her. She said they will have to be forced to take her back.
Another boy stood up and said when he tried to go home and take back his family’s land he was attacked and blinded. A girl said she was threatened. In Africa’s most densely populated country, orphans returning to villages to claim their family’s old land are not normally welcomed.
Several teens asked about school - they are afraid they will be forced to drop out. The teens applauded when one boy suggested that everyone stay put until they finish school.
But officials say the teens have nothing to fear.
Benilde Uwababyeyi specializes in child protection at the Rwandan Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion. She says the downsizing of the orphanage will be gradual, and all of the children will be placed carefully. The poorest families who take in orphans, she says, will get money to help pay for food, clothes and school fees.
“We will not reintegrate that child, even though she or he has family, without the acceptance of that family. If it refuses, we will not bring that child to the family,” Uwababyeyi said.
She says the downsizing of the Noel orphanage is part of a larger plan to phase orphanages out of Rwanda altogether. Seventeen years after genocide and civil war devastated the country, leaving millions dead and hundreds of thousands of parentless children she says Rwanda can take care for its children without orphanages.
But international donors say closing the Noel discourages much-needed foreign aid.
Charles Trace is the chairman of the United Kingdom-based Point Foundation, which over the past few years has funded new medical and dining facilities, dormitories, bathrooms, a library and a computer room - all for the older children of the Noel.
He says while the Point Foundation intends to continue its support for the Noel, downsizing the orphanage after all that investment is already making some of his donors consider moving their money out of Rwanda.
“If we put the resources into doing what we’ve done and a year later found that somebody has come and taken it all over - whether it's for their own purpose or their community purpose - I won’t probably do that anymore,” Trace stated.
Trace also says closing all orphanages is impractical, as it will not stop mothers from dying and babies from being abandoned.
For most of the 600 children at the Noel, however, their departure from the orphanage appears to be certain, though not immediate. Mama Ineza works at Noel and says she is glad the ministry decided to send the children away gradually, without a time limit.
She says that with so many children at the Noel, and babies continuing to be found by police or being dropped at the center, she says it may even be hard for even God to find homes for them all.