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Stephen Ucembe: A Story of Resilience

“It never felt like a home at all.” -Stephen Ucembe, founder of the Kenya Society of Care Leavers

Stephen Ucembe: A Story of Resilience

“It never felt like a home at all.” -Stephen Ucembe, founder of the Kenya Society of Care Leavers

Stephen was 5 years old when his mother was killed by the man he knew as his stepfather. After her death, Stephen and his siblings grew up in different care facilities.

Stephen experienced isolation and confinement in his 14 years at the orphanage. The institution, one of the largest in Nairobi, housed around 150 children, from toddlers to young adults, as well as people with visible disabilities. There were only two caregivers at any one time.

Stephen experienced isolation and confinement in his 14 years at the orphanage. The institution, one of the largest in Nairobi, housed around 150 children, from toddlers to young adults, as well as people with visible disabilities. There were only two caregivers at any one time.

“Around 5:00 pm, we were locked up in the dormitories for two hours until the night staff got in,” says Stephen. “It was quite difficult then because there was a lot of bullying and sexual abuse by the older boys…because there were just children alone and there was no staff.”

“We could only eat when there was enough donations…An institution is always enclosed, so people really don´t know much about what goes on in it. The only people who know much are the children inside, but [they] don´t get to talk because there´s no one to tell they are abused.”

“We could only eat when there was enough donations…An institution is always enclosed, so people really don´t know much about what goes on in it. The only people who know much are the children inside, but [they] don´t get to talk because there´s no one to tell they are abused.”

The orphanage grounds included a small school. But roughly every three months, the children boarded a bus for a field trip sponsored by a donor. “That´s when we actually got to see the world outside the institution,” says Stephen.

Stephen did not meet his siblings until he was a young man. His biological father, who had visited Stephen once in the orphanage, died. But Stephen was never told. For many years, Stephen was unaware of his father’s death and regrets not being able to attend the burial.

“The social worker never made an effort to find [family] and make sure they visited. My sister never wanted to see my siblings because they were strangers. Later, [when] I met my siblings, we were not even speaking our mother tongue…it felt strange. We couldn’t connect at all.”

“The social worker never made an effort to find [family] and make sure they visited. My sister never wanted to see my siblings because they were strangers. Later, [when] I met my siblings, we were not even speaking our mother tongue…it felt strange. We couldn’t connect at all.”

“Leaving the institution was one of the most difficult moments of my life. We were told, ‘You are old.’ I remember being given an envelope with $100 and told, ‘You have to find a house, and you have to figure out how you will continue your life outside the institution.’”

“Leaving the institution was one of the most difficult moments of my life. We were told, ‘You are old.’ I remember being given an envelope with $100 and told, ‘You have to find a house, and you have to figure out how you will continue your life outside the institution.’”

Stephen says he was fortunate to have a friend who volunteered at the institution who helped him find housing and adjust to life outside. Other peers had difficulties trying “to figure out how to start life,” as Stephen puts it, and turned to drugs, prostitution, and crime.

Stephen works at Hope and Homes for Children, which works to place children with families and end institutionalization. “It´s a personal journey, together with my academic experience and professional background, [that] brings me to advocate for family-based care for children.”

“Not to romanticize the families—I grew up in a family where violence happened. But I believe there are better families out there. So we try to make sure that children are connected to people who love them. You, me, and whoever is on this journey has to make that become reality.”

“Not to romanticize the families—I grew up in a family where violence happened. But I believe there are better families out there. So we try to make sure that children are connected to people who love them. You, me, and whoever is on this journey has to make that become reality.”

“Children need to be treated more as individuals. We need family-centered approaches, investing in childhood, investing in families. At the end of the day, the returns are much higher.”

“Children need to be treated more as individuals. We need family-centered approaches, investing in childhood, investing in families. At the end of the day, the returns are much higher.”

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