February 16, 2016
GISENYI, RWANDA — Mary, 7, crawls from one corner of the room to another. For a girl who once could not move any part of her body, crawling is a great achievement. She has cerebral palsy, which hinders her ability to move and speak. She can’t sit on her own or walk.
Mary, who now uses a name given to her by her foster mother, was abandoned – left on the street — when she was a baby. Passers-by heard her screaming and took her to a nearby orphanage, Orphelinat Noël de Nyundo. Mary lived there for six years.
But last year she was taken into foster care as part of a government initiative to close all of its orphanages. Rwandan officials hope the program, called Tubarerere Mu Muryango, which in English means “Let’s Raise Children in Families,” will ultimately move all children to live with families and transform those buildings into family support centers.
“When I saw Mary for the first time, her eyes pierced my heart,” says Esperance Murorunkwere, Mary’s foster mother. “Inside her I saw a very nice and kind girl, trapped in a disabled body. I was immediately attracted to her. I cannot know how to explain it, but there was an invisible force that attracted me to her.”
Rwandan officials started the program after reviewing evidence that showed that children in orphanages are at risk for abuse and neglect.
About 3,300 children and young adults were living in 33 orphanages around Rwanda, according to a 2011-2012 survey conducted by the Rwandan Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion and an organization called Hope and Homes for Children.
Efforts to move the children have been successful.
By July 2013, 1,105 of those children had been moved back to their birth families or into the homes of relatives, or they had been taken in by other families, according to the National Commission for Children. As of Dec. 2015, 2,117 of those children were received into families.
Foster families are assessed before a child is placed with them, says Innocent Habimfura, the country director of Hope and Homes for Children in Rwanda, which partners with the government in the program. Once a child is placed with a family, there are ongoing checks to ensure the child’s well-being.
This is a global problem. Many children in institutions suffer violence at the hands of staff and other children, according to a 2006 United Nations report. Children with disabilities are especially vulnerable, according to the report.
Anne Mukeshimana, 29, comes from a family with 12 children, six of whom were adopted. She says her parents inspired her.
“My parents are not rich but they have a great heart,” she says. “From them I learned what love is. Where there is love, nothing is impossible.”
Even now as her parents are older, she says, they’re still caring for children, and recently welcomed two more.
Mukeshimana is married and has two sons, ages 3 and 1. She took in two girls, ages 9 and 10, in 2015.
“Adopting these children has been a good experience of my life,” she says. “They are so nice and so kind. What they want most is to be loved, to have a family and enjoy peace and joy you can only find in a family.”
Many families worry about the cost of taking in children, Mukeshimana says, but she insists that love is really all you need.
“I would have feared to adopt them but I did not, because I know that what matters is not money but having a spirit of sharing, having a heart to love and being able to care and listen,” she says.
Providence Murekatete, a 50-year-old a widow, is the mother of three grown children, the youngest of whom is 17 years old. She took in Merthilde, age 10, in 2015.
“I’m a mother and I like children. This is the reason why I decided to take Merthilde with me,” Murekatete says. “She is loved by her siblings; she is now my last-born.”
But while many applaud the closure of orphanages, some Rwandan families are too impoverished to care for more children.
Ignace Habineza, 48, says some children might suffer more in family homes than they did in orphanages. People should think twice, he says, because raising children might not be as easy as they think.
“For me I would never take another child because I have already many responsibilities,” he says.
That’s not the case for Murorunkwere, who took in 7-year-old Mary.
Today, Mary is a happy girl, Murorunkwere says. Mary attends school and spends her days with other disabled children. When she sees her foster mother she smiles and tries to crawl in her direction. Her foster mother takes Mary into her arms and covers her with kisses.
“The love and tenderness is healing my girl, I know that thanks to the love shown to her this physical and mental condition will ameliorate,” Murorunkwere says.
Murorunkwere says she and Mary had a strong connection from the start. When Murorunkwere arrived at the orphanage to visit her, the girl smiled and tried to move.
“Her feelings were visible,” Murorunkwere says. “I knew she liked me.”
When it was time for Murorunkwere to leave, she says Mary’s face changed and tears filled her eyes.
Mary was “looking at me as if she was begging me to stay on her side,” Murorunkwere says. “I could not tell her goodbye without my heart to break. Oh, it was painful for both of us.”
After many visits and formalities, Mary came to live with Murorunkwere. She had been living in an orphanage for six years, Murorunkwere says.
“At night I slept with her in the same bed, and she could not stop looking at me and smiling,” Murorunkwere says. “Oh, how I love my daughter.”
Mary’s health improved the longer she lived with Murorunkwere. Eventually she began to move and crawl on the floor.
“During the day Mary could remain on a mat in the living room, playing with siblings, but one day while I was cooking meal in the kitchen, I felt someone touch me on my leg,” Murorunkwere says. “When I turned around I saw Mary. I was submerged by emotion that I cried. It’s a miracle to see my Mary moving. It’s a miracle.”
Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ, translated some interviews from Kinyarwanda.