"Fighting Child Trafficking & Reuniting Families" with KEREN RILEY

Keren Riley
As a foreigner, what drove you to respond to the plight of Ugandan Children?
"We adopted our son from Uganda in 2005 when he was 8 years old.  He had spent 5 years living in an orphanage in Kampala. He taught us so much about what really goes on inside orphanages and the damage they do to a child’s development.  We wanted to do something about it and try to stop other children going through what our son went through.  We also wanted to help create a movement where children are no longer brought up in orphanages in Uganda but are brought up in families."

In your description of "Reunite" you describe some children as being "lost in the orphanage system", could you elaborate?
"Often, children end up in orphanages and not all the family members are aware of it.  In many cases the child’s parents have had a break down in their relationship and perhaps the child has been put in the orphanage without one side of the families consent. So when “Reunite” does investigations, we often discover that some family members are incredibly pleased that they know now where the children are and that they have a chance of being able to parent them.  Sometimes the child enters the system and due to poor record keeping, faulty paper work or disorganized filing that the child is taken to an orphanage and literally gets lost in the system.
There are no central databases keeping all the information together from the various parties – Ministry of Gender, police stations, probation offices, orphanages, so it is easy to see how a child can get lost in the system."

Could you share from your experiences, the magnitude of child trafficking for international adoption or kidnapping.
Photograph by Keren Riley
"I think the problem of child trafficking for international adoption is of grave concern in Uganda.  Orphanages are not generally full of baby girls under the age of 1.  However, that is often the demographic of child that is requested by adoptive parents.  If the demand is there, the supply will be found. We know that vulnerable mothers, fathers and other family members are often approached and manipulated into giving up their children for “a better life”.  We often find that the Western concept of adoption is not properly explained, so they are basically tricked into giving up their children.  Western adoption means a permanent severing of parental ties, so the child is no longer legally yours, but is legally the Western family’s child. We often find that Ugandans are told that their children will go for just a few years, will be educated and then will return and buy the family land/allow you visas to their new country etc.  I was told by a former employee in the US embassy who was involved in issuing visas that she thought 90% of the visa applications were fraudulent. This is very serious and very shocking information!"

In your line of work, could you outline the most significant challenge you face?
 "I think “Reunites” biggest challenge is securing regular funding.  It is very easy to raise funds for “orphans” in orphanages.  Post a sad, bleak looking photo of a sickly child languishing in an orphanage and people’s heart strings will be pulled.  But if your work is about trying to empty orphanages and getting the child(children) back to their villages, where the child is not a victim in the story anymore but instead is empowered back within his/her clan, it might not appeal to donors as much.  I am positive that the tide is beginning to change because of the information available now about the damage of institutional care on a child’s short and long term development."

Keren with a Ugandan Family 
Being a non-African, could you share your views on how these broken/separated families affect Africa as a whole?
"I think something dies inside of you when you are not brought up by your family.  By people who resemble you and who understand you.  Self-esteem comes from a place of belonging and of feeling accepted.  That comes from being loved and raised in your family.  I also sometimes wonder about the children being adopted and brought up in distant lands.  What if among those children are great leaders, doctors, engineers or lawyers who would significantly impact Uganda?  What if a future President was among those children being adopted? I know this might seem a crazy idea, but I think we really should think about this.  Every country needs the next generation to take on the challenges of the country and to help improve it and make it greater than the previous generation.  So let’s hang on to the younger generation and cherish them."

Keren Riley is the 'Founder & Creative Director' of "Reunite". "Reunite" is currently a project under Alternative Care Initiatives in Uganda. For more information view their BLOG.

Interview by Philani H. Dhlamini

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