Story and photos by Saber Jendoubi
The people of Central African Republic have suffered violence and civil war for much of the last few decades. As such, according to the French humanitarian organization Triangle, there are at least 1,000 homeless children in the capital city of Bangui.
These children are growing up in a country that recent research by UK-based Commonwealth Secretariat found to be the worst place in the world to be young. Even the education system is under siege: The UN Security Council reported 36 cases of the military use of schools from late 2012 to February 2016.
After fleeing violence, Blandine, 16, lived with her parents in the M’Poko camp for internally displaced persons, or IDPs, where thousands of people survived for three years until a government-ordered closure in December 2016. Between the makeshift shacks along the runways of the airport where the camp was located, Blandine became a victim of rape.
“From that moment on, my family told me to go,” she says. “They did not want to see me anymore.”
So Blandine left the camp and lived on the streets for three years. She joined a group of other street children that included Clara, 9. To survive, they did the dishes in small restaurants and begged for money.
“Sometimes I would go in random people’s houses through their windows and sleep in their living room,” says Clara. “I’d get up around 4 a.m. and go back to town.”
Against this grim backdrop, there are pockets of hope. For Blandine and Clara, things started to turn around when they crossed paths with Beatrice Epaye.
“I asked them why they were on the street, says Beatrice. “Their stories are appalling. I told them to come with me. I said I would find them clothes and a place to eat.”
Beatrice is a congresswoman in the Central African Republic and is active in the country’s human rights network. In 2000, she took over directorship of La Fondation la Voix de Coeur, or the Voice of the Heart Foundation—a home where girls who have been victims of violence or abandonment are sheltered, clothed, fed, educated, and given medical care. The idea is to help the girls move from life on the street to having a brighter future.
“We’re taking up girls that we find on the streets and also some who come directly to us,” she says. “We try to find out what their stories are, and see if we can find their families. It can take us up to six months to find their families or a relative who accepts them.”
As Beatrice’s car pulls up to the facility in Damala, a northern district of Bangui, about a dozen of the students stop playing and run towards her to say hello. The compound is almost as large as a soccer field and surrounded by high walls. In the center of it all stands a building with a classroom, dining room, and Beatrice’s office. Next to that building is the dormitory, where the girls share a 12-square-meter space that includes showers and latrines.
In just the past year, the foundation has assisted around 50 girls between the ages of 8 and 17. While at the facility, the girls attend school, learning basic reading, writing, and math. They are also trained in income-generating skills like sewing, dyeing fabric, and cooking. When available, psychologists provide care and reproductive health information.
“We would like to keep them longer,” says Beatrice, “even if we follow up with the parents. But we are overwhelmed with demands. So we make sure that they are as quickly autonomous as possible when they leave and we make it clear that in case of need, our door is always open.”
It’s a small project, but it’s doing a world of good for the students it helps—girls like Blandine and Clara.
In fact, after their time at Voice of the Heart, many of the girls report hoping to one day become teachers and help students just like themselves one day.
Beatrice’s reaction? “This makes me very proud!”