Because "orphan" can mean a lot of things. There has been massive confusion about the term in the last few years. Many people have cited the statistic that there are 163 million orphans in the world. And so we picture 163 million children languishing alone in orphanages.
But of course, that is not the case. The statistics from UNICEF and other global organizations refer to children who have lost at least 1 parent. Only about 18 million of those orphans are double orphans, meaning they have lost both parents.
And of those 18 million children, many, if not most, have extended families that could potentially care for them.
In Congo, and in many other places, there is in fact a strong culture of extended family care. Solange, one of the SHONA Congo women, lost both her parents when she was a child. Despite extreme poverty and living in the midst of a war-zone, Solange's uncle still took Solange in. I doubt it occurred to him to do anything else. In the face of extremely difficult situations, Congolese families regularly take in relatives, even distant relatives. They take in children who have been orphaned, or whose parents just can't care for them right now.
But wait. That doesn't mean the rest of us are off the hook.
Because what they are attempting is a Herculean task. The loss of a parent is crushing, and even with the best of intentions, a remaining parent or an extended family often struggles to care for children in this type of loss.
Here is the reality. Orphaned children often have some form of family that is able to take them in. But what they and their families often don't have is support, emotional or financial.
And that can make all the difference in the world in whether that child will eventually end up on the street.
Consider this...One of the first things that often happens to children after they lose a parent is they are pulled out of school. The family just can't continue to pay. But imagine how that feels to the child. They lose their world, twice-over. How likely is it, that even with family around, they will feel isolated, stigmatized and lost?
And how can they find words to express the loss, in a world where so much energy is expended just on keeping food on the table? Suddenly the extended family finds one more mouth at the table, and it is all they can do just to make sure there is enough food.
But we all need more than food on the table. Consider how much access we, in the Western world, have to grief counseling, to therapy, to support. In Congo, there are precious few programs offering any type of therapy to grieving children and almost no one offering support and education to their caregivers.
That is why the New Hope Center matters. It is a small program in Goma, which serves this population. They work with children who have lost loved ones, keeping them in their homes, helping them find a safe place for their grief, paying their school fees and supporting and educating their families, so that together they can find a way forward. It isn't easy, but it is possible. And isn't that our first responsibility? To support what is possible, locally?
In the 6 years I have worked with the SHONA ladies, one of the most humbling things to me has been watching how they accept responsibility for their extended families.
They regularly take in nieces and cousins and all kinds of relatives, even when they have so little themselves. I can't count how many school fees they pay, and medicines they buy for what to me seems like an unending crush of family members. I have often been tempted to say "Come on! You don't have have to do that!". But I finally realized that what to me what seems an unreasonable request, to them is an honor, a privilege. Even when they are pressed to the edge, they desperately want to throw open their doors, and care for others.
But the SHONA ladies aren't unique. Daily, Congolese families are doing just that. They are throwing open their doors and taking in children who have been orphaned. Let's make sure they have the resources they deserve.