Our community was formed in 2008 when a small group of American students and teachers partnered with a team of Ugandan artists. Our original goal was to create educational and vocational opportunities for artistically gifted youth living on the streets of Kampala. However, our focus quickly shifted when we saw the dire conditions street life created for each child. In response, we created a residential program that provides restorative care for children living on the streets full-time, focusing our efforts in Jinja, the source of the Nile River.
Children end up on the streets for a number of reasons. Many of the children we work with are orphans, and others have left their homes to flee unsafe conditions in their villages. Others have done so because their families live in severe economic distress, either in rural villages or city slums, and are unable to care for them. Often parents in extreme poverty will encourage older children to leave home to find ‘work,’ including begging, selling scrap materials for recycling, or prostitution. Many who flee extreme poverty to join street life often do so under the impression that it will provide them with more opportunities and economic advantages than their home lives.
Life on the streets proves to be treacherous for children who find themselves without a place to call home. These children become extraordinarily resourceful and resilient in order to survive. Many are ‘adopted’ by gangs, that form and function to satisfy a much needed sense of ‘belonging’ for children without families or other support systems, and are accordingly trapped in cycles of criminal activity and violence. At one point or another, many turn to substance or drug abuse in order to endure the harshness of the streets, whether that be threat of violence or hazardous weather conditions (extreme cold, rain storms, etc.).
Overlooked by society, street children are at best disregarded and at worst dehumanized. Because they lack identification documents, street children are often targeted in ways that perpetuate gross abuses of human rights. Most street children are subjected to, or at a minimum have witnessed, unreported police brutality (shootings, chain whippings, sexual violence and so forth). Others have been forcibly removed from the streets by police officers in ‘round-ups’ and taken to ‘youth detention centers’ that fail to meet international human rights standards. In order to feed themselves, many children will work in unsafe and exploitative environments that expose them to the dangers of child labour, sex slavery and human trafficking. In Uganda, the prevalence of witchcraft also makes street children targets for kidnappings and child sacrifice rituals. For ‘unregistered’ children (those lacking proof of birth or identity), all are susceptible to abduction in one form or another because there is no proof of the child’s existence before their disappearance.