HOW THE STATE IS RAISING ORPHANS: THE STORY OF THE 10-YEAR OLD ABUSED GIRL

SHTEPIA E FEMIJES SARANDE-27 KORRIK 2013By: Endrit Keraj and Telnis Skuqi –
The 10-year old orphan, Aurela K, would have never believed in Santa Claus, if she were to continue waiting for the New Year in the Saranda Orphanage.

Nearly a week ago, our colleague Kristina Fidhi told us about Aurela’s story. She was abandoned at the age of three by her parents. Her father married another woman, whereas her mother simply disappeared. The Social Services took her in and she has lived in Saranda Orphanage five years now. Aurela is great at school and has a passion for the music. As every orphan though, she feels the lack of parental love.
“I have known her since she was as little as the palm of my hand. It was back in the year 2007 when I first saw her. School had not start at the time. I was accompanying an American photo reporter who was interested at taking pictures of people that had experienced violence”, Kristina, mother of an 11-year old kid, told us. She continued by saying that, “Lela has the face of an angel, but she looks sad and lonely compared to kids of her age. I approached and spoke to her. She (Lela) was shy, nonetheless and to my surprise, I liked talking to her and at the end, I decided to take her home with me in Gjirokastra to celebrate the New Year’s Eve, so that she could experience a different Christmas time. During her 1-week stay, Kristina understood that Aurela was not sociable with the other 35 children living in the Orphanage.
Kristina said, “She rather preferred to hang around with adults. Lela had psychological problems and was not treated properly by the social institution that was supposed to take care of her, which surprised me. I remember when she received her first gift. She told me she did not believe in Santa Claus; however, she wrote him a letter, saying, “Dear Santa Claus. You don’t even know me, but if you care to bring me a present, make it be something related to music.” Kristina told us she was surprised to learn that the orphanage’s personnel had never talked to the children about the myth of Santa Claus, as every other kid in the world.
However, this was Aurela’s smallest problem. She used to be happy and sad at the same time, she could not take care of herself, and she did not even know what personal hygiene is, because none of the educators has taught her how to care.
Kristina continued, “It is not my intention to judge the educators’ work, but I think it is inexcusable not to teach an orphan kid about personal hygiene. When I took Lela home, she had dirty and unironed clothes. Probably, the word “clothes” is not right to describe what she was wearing. When she went back to the institution, I saw she had a personal wardrobe in her room, but everything was messy. There was no carpet in the floor and of course, no sign of a toy around. Her room resembled more to a military room. To be short, the three-floor orphanage building, maybe 50 years old, had somehow denied her the right to enjoy childhood.
Kristina recalls that during Aurela’s stay at her home, she had the chance to live some happy family moments. However, she isolated herself most of the time. Her drawings reflected her spiritual distress. She dissociated herself from reality, kept drawing some horror scenes, full of blood, and severed heads. I was terrified. It is not normal for a child to draw such things. Lela never talked about the future. Honestly, I felt compassion”. Kristina told us.
Adriana Kushta, Director of the Saranda Orphanage admits the institution’s difficult situation, the lack of proper conditions for the wellbeing and education of children. “The building’s physical condition is really bad. Unfortunately, there is no library and insects and worms are eating the food or other stuff we have in stock. It was hard for us to repair the kitchen. It took eight months to install a new oven in the kitchen”, Kushta said.
According to her, out of the 47 children living in this institution, 34 are residential and 13 who stay there on a daily basis, as kids experiencing family and economic problems. “The latter are provided with care based on a Model Contract with the local government. This category benefits care and feeding. The main objective is their integration. They come at 07:00 in the morning and their parents pick them up at 17:00. This practice started two years ago. Meanwhile, the municipality supports financially this project. For the 34 residential children, the situation is more problematic. Since 2010, when the Orphanage’s management was taken over by the Saranda Municipality, the institution feels as being financially abandoned by the state.
“In 2011, the annual fund amounted to ALL 4.7 million. This fund is supposed to include all the services, such as, heating, feeding, medical care, clothing and all the other expenses. However, if we make a simple calculation, with a daily quota of ALL 330 for a child per day (for 365 days a year) only for food, we would need a fund exceeding ALL 4 million. What about the rest? The state is denying me the right to properly care about these children. This was the question answered by Kushta herself. She added that the institution is not able to provide for their hygiene, clothing and medical care, due to the low finances allocated by the state budget.
“At least, I receive some funds from the donors. Businessmen are terrified of me”, Kushta said and added that, “In the winter, orphans are lucky to receive at least the Albanian and foreign donors’ warmth, because their state has totally abandoned them. On the other hand, the municipality has almost doubled within one year, the fund for the existence of this institution, from ALL 500.000 in 2012 to ALL 900.000 in 2013. Another problem according to the orphanage’s director is the lack of qualified staff. It is difficult nowadays to find a person that does not have a university diploma. I think that, in order to work in this kind of institution, you have to go through some filters, but this is policy unfortunately is not applied in our country.”
Kushta said the institution would need at least three psychologists; we currently have only one, working on a voluntary basis.
“Even though the psychologist has completed a master degree, she is paid as an educator”, specified Kushta, while telling us that the situation gets worse for the orphans after finishing the 9-year school cycle. “I remember that before 1990, orphans benefited a state scholarship, which has ceased to exist. Only the technological high school in Vlora, and the private center TAG in Tirana enroll orphans, no one else. This is a shame. The state abandons them in the most delicate age”, emphasized Kushta and told us that she has addressed this concern to all the institutions in charge, but there has been no reaction from their side.
Irena Vjerri, psychologist for the last three years in this institute, told us that the orphans approaching the institute have many issues related to their past. “Almost all the children living here have experienced family desertion, exploit, physical or sexual abuse by their own parents, etc. Unfortunately, they keep experiencing the past traumas, but, at least they possess the gene of survival.” To Vjerri, her job is divided into two categories. The first group of children comes from the Vlora Orphanage and she said that handling them is her simpler task, because these children are somehow rehabilitated and they have their files when they come here, “so I know how to “handle” them. It saves me time. The second category is the most difficult. They come directly from the street and have been exposed to different traumas. The first thing they ask is accommodation. As a second most important thing, they want to speak to a psychologist.” Irena goes on explaining.
Irena has listened many painful stories, but Aurela’s case (Lela) has really impressed her.
Irena told us that, “That child has been cruelly abused. She reflects her suffering in her art. She paints dark images, long nails, and referred to her mother as a stepmother. As a psychologist, I have seen that orphan kids are smart, talented and respect you twice the normal. They know how to handle you”, Irena said, adding that unfortunately she feels as an “illegal employee” in the institution, since she does not have a dedicated office that can be appropriate to individually work with the orphan children.
Irena says that regardless of a set of 13 standards determined by the State Social Service (SHSSH), which are legal requirements, it results this important institution is unable to fulfill them. “According to the SHSSH’s standards, as a psychologist I should treat 10 children, whereas the number of children that I actually have under my care is 45. Their psychological assessment takes place once a year, based also on the individual child’s progress. “From my experience, I can say that orphans feel inferior even at school, because they are not equal to the other children. Orphans cannot go in school trips, or even buy an ice cream if they want one, because they almost never have money on their hands”, Irena emphasized.
Ilir Çumani, Director General of the National Orphan Integration Institute (IKIJSH), is concerned about the orphans’ situation in Albania. “Out of 700.000 Albanians in need of assistance, 184.000 are children, and 31.000 of them are orphans. More than two thirds of this age group face the most extreme difficulties trying to survive, but those mostly affected by the maximum poverty are the orphan children”, Çunami said. According to him, only a small number of these children benefit social aid from the state.
Çumani emphasized that, “Social aid given by the state covers only 5% of their basic needs. Out of 31.000 orphan children countrywide, only 400 are accommodated in 9 state residential centers, whereas 360 in nongovernmental centers (NGOs). Many orphans that have finished high school studies have a shelter to live, but hundreds are unemployed and live in ghetto-like conditions. “In these miserable environments they don’t even have the minimal living standards, and therefore even no hope for the future. Thus, they are twice orphans, left in the mercy of god, and making the most vulnerable and marginalized category of the Albanian society”, Çumani added.
The National Orphans Integration Institute has continuously insisted that the state and politics be more sensitive towards this situation. “The institute has constantly demanded from the local government authorities, in the frame of the social services decentralization process, to have and use all the necessary legal instruments to contribute to the improvement of orphans’ social conditions. We have incessantly called for cooperation between the government and the various society actors to prevent such a crime against life. In this frame, it is worth mentioning that due to the self-judgment phenomena, 1400 children have become orphans only in the last 21 years. However, the Albanian government has totally ignored our voice”, Çumani declared and clarified that nearly 600 orphan children of murdered police officers, have not felt the state’s help, as a moral obligation and sign of respect to their 350 fathers, called the “Nation’s Martyrs”.
“The Albanian parliamentarians have amended the law “On the status of parliament members” 40 times, in order to guarantee support and wellbeing to themselves and their families, whereas, the law “On the orphans” has never been amended. Therefore, the current orphans’ living quota is USD 28 per month. It is the same amount as in the beginning of the transition period, and now the minimal living cost for an individual in Albania is USD 400 per month”, Çumani added. He then emphasized the fact that Albanian orphans have been denied the right of a shelter, among many other rights. They have been thus positioned as the most marginalized and hopeless stratum of the society.
“Orphans need dignity and sheltering. According to the official statistics issued for the 1996-2011 period, only 29 out of 1150 orphans have benefitted sheltering, in line with the legal provisions in force. “It’s not a piece of bread that these persons need, but rather a dignified life. Orphans believe to conduct a dignified life, only if they have a shelter above their heads”, Çumani added.
Official sources of the State Social Service (SHSSH) told us that this institution, together with its 12 regional offices, monitors as its responsibility all the centers dealing with orphans kids, so that they feel better treated by the state and society in general, because one of the priorities of the institution is its care of the children in general, and of orphan children in particular. “The state care though, as perfect as it can be, cannot replace the care provided by the society and donors’.
The same source stresses that, “The Orphans’ Status”, which has been approved as early as 1996, is granted to persons of age 0-25 years old, that were born from extramarital affairs or have been abandoned, or whose parents have deceased, or persons that through a court final decision have been denied the parental right of one parent, when the other is deceased. The law provides that this status be granted also to persons above the age of 25, but only limited to the right of sheltering.
The SHSSH clarified that there are 9 public residential institutions countrywide that provide services to 226 orphan children in the district of Tirana, Vlora, Shkodra, Durrësi and Korça; 18 non-public residential institutions (NGOs) providing services to 416 children; 3 public institutions providing day care to nearly 1500 children. “In these public and private institutions dedicated to orphan children, the latter are provided with food, clothing, accommodation, psycho-social services, as well as health and education services”, the SHSSH added.

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