Archives For Rescue and Recovery

Its Family Time!

The family visit day is one of the key events on the Challenging Heights Hovde House’s calendar. The day is always met with so much excitement, anxiety and a bittersweet feeling as the children get to see their immediate families. Some of these family members of which were in a way responsible for the ordeal, after quite a significant amount of years in slavery. Organizing such an event is therefore important as it usually becomes the first step on a journey to reconciliation as well as reunification. Prior to the event, the children are counselled and helped as much as possible to deal with the pain or bitterness they feel towards any of their relatives.

Once the relatives reached the Hovde House, they are informed by the reintegration officers, the importance of making the children feel as secured and loved as much as possible. They are first taking through a period of training with the staff at the facility, on the progress, needs and concerns of the children who are going to be reintegrated. They are then given some bit of guidelines on what to talk about with the kids once they finally get interactive with them. This is done to ensure that they do not speak about issues that could trigger the reoccurrence of any trauma or put the child in a bad mood after the relatives have left.

The most recent of this event was held on the 26th of July, when the Challenging Heights bus conveyed the families of the children expected to be reintegrated later this month to the Hovde House. The relatives were mostly from Winneba and Senya, two of the most notable source communities of trafficked children. The parents were taking through the routine prepping as the expectant children tried to keep their eyes in the classroom and hide their visible excitement. The usual issues such as the dangers of trafficking, the activities and the progress of the yet to be reintegrated children were talked about by the various staff at the centre.

Opanyin Kojo, a fisherman all the way from Yeji, shared a confession after the opportunity was given for the visiting families make contributions and ask questions. “Honestly, I just decided to represent the family of one of the kids here because I wanted to know exactly what Challenging Heights does, since I see them almost every year coming to rescue some of the children we work with on the lake. I must admit that I am pleasantly surprised and would do well to spread the good news when I go back to Yeji.” The other relatives also shared similar views of gratitude to the organization for giving their children the chance at life again.

The opportunity the children had been waiting for all day came when they closed after school. The hugs, smiles, surprises and even some occasional tears of joy glittered every area of the Hovde House. To some, it felt like a long journey finally reaching its stopping point while to others, it was the day they had a family once again. The children ended their day by having a photoshoot with their respective families before they headed back home. With waves and smiles, the kids waved the bus as it took its gentle steps out of the house, knowing that somewhere in their original homes, they have a family longing and yearning to receive them when the time comes.

Written By Intern: Kofi Agyei-Poku

It was early evening when the Rescue Team stepped off the bus in Yeji. They had little time to get everything in order to set off the next day.

The first stop was at the hotel, to drop off bags and wash away the dust and dirt from the 12-hour journey. Stephen, the Rescue and Community Engagement Manager then set off to meet with the local police, the navy commander, and the local director of the Department of Social Welfare.

He delivered a letter to each, explaining the plan for the coming week and asking for their support and assistance. A particular request for two navy officers to accompany the team on the lake required a bit of negotiation, but a plan was made for the following day.

Beginning the Search

The sun rose just after 6 am, but because of the thick haze of dust it was impossible to find in the sky. That dust made navigation on the water difficult and dangerous, so the team waited, hoping for it to clear up. By 10 am, after completing some final errands for food and fuel, the team set off in search of the first name on the list.

The long wooden canoe flew across the open water, the surface occasionally broken by long dead trees. The team spent more than three hours searching for the village they thought the child was in.

Stephen and Solomon landed in a small community, and went in search of the chief. He greeted them and invited them to sit under a canopy where they could discuss the business at hand.

“We’re here with Challenging Heights and we are looking for Kwesi*, he has a child with him named Kwame*. We want to take Kwame back to his mother,” Stephen explained.

After listening to Stephen explain the mission and about Challenging Heights, the chief asked some of the other men who had gathered if they knew Kwesi, the man Stephen was looking for. Each one shook their heads. They suggested that he may be in another village.

From Village to Village

Stephen and Solomon thanked the chief and returned to the boat, to travel another hour to the next village. They repeated their story and who they were looking for, but again found they were not in the right place. By now, night was falling and it was too dangerous to travel on Lake Volta at night.

Solomon knew the people in another small village, a 30-minute ride away. The team set off, hoping they would allow them to spend the night there, so they could continue the search for the child in the morning. Due to the strong community connections the team has cultivated in our years of working on the Lake, the team was provided a place to stay for the evening.

The next day, the team set off for another village two hours away. The community members had heard the name of the man in question in that area. When the team arrived, they again spoke with the chief, who called for a man to come to the meeting.

“That is my name, but I don’t know the child you are asking about,” Kwesi said.

After asking more questions, it was determined that this man shared a name with the man the team was looking for, but it wasn’t him.

“Sometimes, it happens this way,” Stephen said as the boat returned to Yeji. “Sometimes it takes three or four days to find just one child. But we have to.”

A Tip-Off Turns into Pay-Off

The Rescue Team checked in with the local authorities again and returned to the hotel room to shower and change before coming up with a plan for the next few days. They heard that there was another village on the other side of Lake Volta with the same name that they were looking for. Maybe they had mixed up the locations.

In the morning, after the haze cleared, the team set off. This time prepared to spend several days on the lake. Just as they were heading out, the Department of Social Welfare called with a tip about another trafficked child. They were in the vicinity of where the team was heading that day.

By early afternoon, the team was returning to Yeji, with nine rescued children, including Kwame.

“This is why we have to keep going,” Stephen said. “Because sometimes, we end up rescuing more children than we were looking for.”

 

So far in 2017, we have cared for 128 children at the Challenging Heights Hovde House. That means that 128 children are no longer in modern slavery. Every child received psychological care, emotional support and educational opportunities.

Our recovery shelter has been filled to capacity throughout the year. Therefore, we postponed rescues until we had the space available to bring children to the shelter.

We started this year with the new goal of ending child trafficking in Ghana’s fishing industry within the next five years. In order to do that, we must expand our shelter. Here’s our plan.

Phase 1: new classrooms

Right now, the shelter has four classrooms on the ground floor and a shared space that acts as the library, therapy room and recreation room. These spaces and the current dormitories are all a part of one building.

We are starting construction on a new building consisting of six classrooms and a dedicated library. The classrooms will be detached from the main building in the backyard, which will allow the boys and girls the experience of leaving where they live to go to school. One thing that we strive to do at the shelter is to give the children an experience that will be similar to what life will be like once they return home. This will help us to do that.

As the number of children being cared for at the shelter increases, six new classrooms will allow us to keep class sizes small. Small class sizes allow the children to receive individualised instruction and attention.

Finally, having a dedicated library will provide a specialised space for the boys and girls to explore new worlds through print. Access to books and engaging reading materials is such an important part of any child’s education and provides a strong foundation for success.

We estimate that the cost of this first phase of construction will cost about $120,000. Thanks to our amazing supporters, we have about half of the necessary funding and have broken ground on the foundation.

Phase 2: new dormitories

Once the new classrooms are built, the current classrooms will be converted into dormitories. The second story of the building will be extended above the current classrooms to create new dormitories as well. In total, the new dorms will be able to accommodate up to 100 survivors of modern slavery.

Right now, we have one dorm for girls and three dorms for boys, all on the second floor. We plan to have the coverted classrooms become the girls’ dormitories, giving them their own space on the ground floor. The boys will remain upstairs, and the new rooms will allow them to share space with other boys their own age.

With the anticipated increase in the number of children at the shelter, we’ve also planned for more shelter assistants. These are the staff members that spend all day and night at the shelter, acting as surrogate parents for the children. Rooms and living quarters for the new staff members are a part of the plan.

We estimate the cost of the addition on the second floor and converting the current classrooms will be about $70,000.

You can make the end of child trafficking a reality

By increasing the capacity of the Challenging Heights Hovde House, you’ll be the catalyst for ending child trafficking in Ghana’s fishing industry.

You can make a contribution to the construction, or you can create your own fundraiser. We’d love to have you on board!

Growing up, Kojo* was a typical Ghanaian child. He is the second oldest of six children, so he helped to look after his younger siblings when he wasn’t in school. Around when he was 14, and in class two at school, his mother died. His father, struggled with the financial burden of the funeral and caring for six children. So when the trafficker came, and offered to employ Kojo on Lake Volta for a year and send the money to his father, it seemed like a good idea. They had no clue of the realities that Kojo would face over the next four years.

“I didn’t know what was happening,” Kojo recounts. “My father persuaded me to go and said it would only be for a year. My grandma tried to stop it, but my father forced me to go anyway.”

Life on Lake Volta was hectic. Every day, Kojo would get up at dawn and carry the outboard motor to the boat to go fishing, setting nets that he would later spend hours dragging in. Sometimes when the nets would snag on submerged tree stumps he would dive to untangle them. They would return back to the village around 1 pm, but the work was not finished for Kojo. He would then start processing the fish. take them to the market and help to sell them into the evening. All this only to get up the next day and do it all over again, with only Sundays off.

In the evenings, he would eat his only meal of the day. Usually it was just banku or konkonte, but sometimes he would be lucky enough to get some fish and soup too. At night he slept on a dirt floor in a room that he shared with five other boys who had also been trafficked to the Lake.

Kojo’s aunt helps to take care of him and received some fish as a microgrant.

In the years that Kojo was on the Lake, his grandmother tried to convince the family to go find him. After a number of futile efforts, the family came to Challenging Heights for help.

“All along I was praying to be taken home.” Then, after four years working on Lake Volta the rescue team arrived at the house for Kojo. “I didn’t know what was happening, but I figured my prayers had been answered.”

A week after Kojo was rescued, his grandmother passed away, with the knowledege that her grandson was now safe at the Challenging Heights Hovde House.

“When I arrived, I saw so many children, so I knew I must be in a safe place,” Kojo remembered. “I was so excited to o to school.”

After a few months at the recovery shelter, it was time to return home to his family. He had mixed feelings, glad to go home and sad to leave his friends. But when he arrived, his aunt, uncle and father gave him a warm welcome full of hugs and he felt like he was a part of the family again.

Kojo at his mechanic apprenticeship.

Since his return, his family has become strong community advocates. Before, they had never heard of children going  to Lake Volta, and certainly had no idea of the abuses that children like Kojo suffer. Now, they tell all their neighbours about what really happens on Lake Volta.

“There was someone who was going to send their child to the Lake. We told them about what happened to Kojo, how he was beaten and mistreated. Then they knew that the Lake was not a good place for a child to go,” Kojo’s aunt said.

For the last year and four months, Kojo has been working as a mechanics apprentice.

“I’m very happy with the work and so excited to get something to do in the future. I have wanted to be a mechanic since childhood, and now I plan to open my own shop and assist other children,” Kojo said. “There’s hope.”

 

 

 

*Aliases have been used to protect identities.

Visiting home for the first time after being rescued from modern slavery on Lake Volta.

It’s a relatively routine morning in Joma, a small town along the coast of Ghana. Women are walking the streets, selling produce carefully balanced on their heads. Children are in school, sitting with their attention turned to their teachers. At one house, young children play near their homes while their parents tend to chores, like braiding hair and cooking for the mid-day meal. In the middle of this routine, the Challenging Heights bus pulls up and four boys file out. This is their home, one they haven’t seen in years.

At Challenging Heights, we know that we provide high-quality care to the children who have been rescued from modern slavery at the Challenging Heights Hovde House. We also know that there is always room for improvement, which is why we’re taking a close look at our reintegration practices, comparing them to the Guidelines on Children’s Reintegration from Family for Every Child and seeing how we can best incorporate their recommendations into our practices.

One thing that we recognised that we could be doing was to better prepare the children for their transition back home. Many of them have been gone for several years. Some of their families have moved while they were working on Lake Volta. In order to give them a better idea of what they can expect at home, such as who will be there, how far away school will be and what their future will hold, we did our first ever supervised home visits for children who will be reintegrated in a few months.

Children having a meal with their family members on a supervised visit home.

There were joyful hugs from siblings of all ages. There was exploring houses to see where they might sleep. There were walks around the neighbourhood to figure out where the best place to buy biscuits is.

And in Joma, the boys embraced their grandmother, sat down all together with their siblings and their aunts and had a meal together for the first time in a long time.

After we conduct a rescue and the children are brought to the Challenging Heights Hovde House rehabilitation shelter, they are interviewed about their experiences while working on Lake Volta. Nearly all of them report having been physically and verbally abused, with many of them bearing scars on their bodies as testaments to the beatings they endured. Indeed, corporal punishment at home and in schools is widespread throughout Ghana.

Because of these experiences and the behaviour modelled to them, the children often come to us having learned a number of anti-social behaviours. Fighting, insulting others, quarrelling and general disrespect are how many of the boys and girls have learned how to interact with each other and with adults. We know that these experiences are a part of the greater trauma that the children experienced, and that in order to help assist and facilitate their healing, we must not repeat this treatment of them. Additionally, through our modelling, we’re able to help them to learn acceptable and appropriate behaviours.

At the shelter, the shelter team observes the children and completes a weekly behaviour chart. Good behaviours, such as doing their chores, maintaining self-control when experiencing conflict with others, following instructions, helping others and behaving well in class receive points. Negative behaviours, like lying, cursing and insulting, teasing, fighting, damaging property or stealing all result in deducted points. The total possible number of points each week is 20, and if the child receives 15 points or more, they receive an award at the weekly award ceremony.

In the exit interviews of children who are ready for reintegration, nearly all of them comment that one of the most important things they learned in their time at the shelter was how to behave well. Many of them remark that when the arrived, they used to insult others and not listen to adults, that they had a quick temper and would fight easily. Receiving the weekly awards is a highlight for many of the children in the shelter, and their growth in their time here is a testament not only to the staff at the shelter, but to the anti-corporal punishment policy in place.

The majority of the children working on Lake Volta are 10 years old or younger, and this is reflected in the demographics of the children we rescue and rehabilitate at our shelter. However, there are a number of children who are teenagers, who were trafficked at a very young age and have never been to school. While they are at the Challenging Heights Hovde House, they are enrolled in school to gain basic literacy and numeracy skills, however it is often a struggle for them to catch up academically. This is why the older children, upon reintegration, are given the option to choose an apprenticeship rather than enrolling in school.

There are a variety of trades and jobs in Ghana that are taught by a master to an apprentice, but the two most common that our children choose are mechanic and tailor. We’re very luck to have strong relationships with an excellent master mechanic and master tailor. These men are extremely understanding of the lives these children have led and the difficulties they face in returning to their communities; they have each taken on a number of our reintegrated children as apprentices and under their tutelage, the children have excelled.

Kwame works on the engine of a taxi at his apprenticeship.

Our reintegration officers spent this week paying the fees for the apprentices and providing the necessary supplies and materials. The taxi was loaded up with sewing machines, thread, needles, scissors and tool sets to ensure that the boys and girls are prepared to put their best foot forward in their new learning environments.

We also checked in with the masters to find out how the children were performing, and they only had good things to report about their progress. We’re looking forward to the days where we can get our cars repaired and clothes made by these young people, and knowing that we are contributing to their continued success.

Three years ago Kofi*, then 13, had completed his time at the Challenging Heights Hovde House. He was ready to go home and continue on his path to recovery with his mom and dad in Winneba. Now at 16, Kofi has excelled in school and is nearly at the top of his class.

Kofi had previously been forced to work as a fisherboy on Lake Volta and had never attended school. After spending time in our rehabilitation shelter, our teachers determined he was able to enter into primary class three (P.3). “When I first arrived at the shelter, I felt like maybe my opportunities were limited because the school was so small. I didn’t know that they were preparing me. When I came to the mainstream school, I saw my opportunities open up, especially since I like a bit of competition with the other students,” Kofi said.

He started schooling in P.3 at Challenging Heights School (now Friends International Academy). After the first exam, his teacher and the headmaster looked at his scores and promoted him to P.4. During this time, Challenging Heights was helping to support his mother with livelihoods support and provided him with school supplies which decreased the financial burden on his parents as they gained better financial footing.

The next school year, Kofi transferred schools. The teachers gave him the placement test for P.5, the class he was supposed to enter, and he passed with flying colours. So, they gave him the next test for P.6, which he again passed with ease. It was decided that Kofi would start the school year in Junior High School form 1 (JHS1).

While mathematics is where Kofi excels, his favourite subject is social studies. He really enjoys learning about current affairsand like using his own opinion to answer questions. This past year was particularly special for his social studies class as they followed Ghana’s election. One area that he struggles in is Fante class, partly because his native language is Effutu. However, he doesn’t let his struggles hold him back. He has worked with his Fante teacher to develop some strategies to improve, such as focusing on the phonetics of the words rather than just the spelling, which sometimes are different. With all of this, at the end of JHS1, he was 3rd in his class out of 62 students.

At home, Kofi is happy and comfortable. Most days he helps his aunt sell things in her shop, but he can also be found playing with his siblings and neighbourhood friends. However, he enjoys doing his homework the most.

“My vision in life is to succeed,” Kofi said. “I want to prove to the world that kids who were on the Lake [Volta] can succeed if given the opportunity.”

Kofi’s plans for the future involve passing his BECE at the end of JHS3 and continuing onto Senior High School (SHS). He hopes to get a scholarship so that he can go onto university, where he plans to study medicine and become a doctor. If medical school doesn’t work out, Kofi has a back-up plan: he’ll continue to university and then enter the police force.

When he was working on Lake Volta, Kofi didn’t have any idea of what the future might be, other than fishing. Now, he sees his future as very bright. “I want everyone to know that through Challenging Heights, children can succeed and that there are other children out there that need help.”

Last month, Challenging Heights and their partner Mercy Project reintegrated 30 children with their families after they completed the recovery care programme at the Challenging Heights Hovde House.

The children spent an average of six months at the rehabilitation shelter, where they received therapy, counselling, basic literacy and numeracy education, health care and nutritional care. A number of the children came to the shelter with health problems ranging from bilharzia to wounds from being beaten to malnutrition. With support from the local hospital, all of the children were in excellent health and enrolled in the National Health Insurance Scheme on reintegration day.

Nearly all of the children had spent multiple years on Lake Volta, where they were forced to cast and drag large fishing nets, dive to untangle them, scoop water from the boats and perform domestic chores. For many, their days lasted nearly 18 hours, every day of the week and they survived on a single meal for the day, often just enough to get by. All of them experienced some kind of abuse, typically verbal abuse and often physical abuse.

Prior to reintegration day, our reintegration team spent months tracing the families of the children and preparing them for when the children would return home. The week before reintegration, our recovery team met with the caregivers to share with them information about how children experience trauma and how it can affect family ties. They also talked about financial planning strategies to save money for the future. All the the caregivers were asked what kind of livelihoods support they would like to receive in the form of in-kind goods to sell and our team got to work to procure the goods for them.

On reintegration day, our bus was loaded up with the children who would be returning to Winneba and the surrounding communities and their belongings. We set out and made our rounds to each of the children’s homes where they were greeted by their families with smiles, hugs, handshakes and shouts of joy.

In the coming weeks, our reintegration team will be back at the children’s houses, helping to enrol them in school and apprenticeships and providing them with the necessary materials for them to be successful. We’ll also follow up to provide advice and support in the coming years to make the transition as smooth as we can.

We’re excited to watch as these young people grow and and succeed in their new, free lives.

IMG_7168There was a buzz in the air all week. Classes had been closed for a few days and the children had set about to learn a new choreography. Ribbons were wrapped around the pillars that support the roof and tinsel and garlands were hung around the doors and windows. Christmas had arrived at the shelter.

Christmas Eve was passed with a church service. The children listened to the story of Christmas and stories from the Bible, sharing the spirit of the season with one another. Many of the children could relate to the relief that Mary and Joseph felt at being taken in. When the church service closed at 1 a.m. the staff and older children set off fireworks and passed around sparklers for the younger children to enjoy as well.

The next morning, everyone got to sleep in a bit. Once everyone was stirring, it was time to begin the day’s activities and celebration. It wouldn’t be a holiday and celebration in Ghana without food, and everyone feasted. Everyone pitched in to clean the house and courtyard for the afternoon’s programme to begin.

IMG_7163Some of the children, who had prepared the choreography, performed their dance for their friends and the staff. Carols were sung by everyone and it was truly a party atmosphere. Finally gifts were given to all of the children. The boys and girls were given Santa hat, watches and sunglasses, which they all wore with pride and joy for the rest of the day.

For many of the children, this was their first of many Christmases to come spend in freedom, and that is something to celebrate this season.