Tucked away in Ganja la Simba at the coast of Kenya is Al-walidayn Center. Amir Ali Swaleh founded and launched the center in 2014. Swaleh was an orphan and was helped to acquire education while growing up. He is now a successful attorney and says he was moved by the sheer numbers of young girls who were orphaned at an early age while others are victims of child trafficking because of the proximity of the area to the Kenya-Tanzania border point.
“Then we have girls that are brought to us as a result of forced marriages. There is a problem in the community, an old man sells his parcel of land, maybe his age is 65 or 70, he wants to get married to a 13-year-old girl because he now has money or cows. So such girls are normally brought to us at the center,” he says.
Initially, Swaleh only wanted to provide health care services to the locals in this part of the country, but the number of young girls who were brought to the health facility after being abandoned was huge. This saw him come up with an idea to construct a girl’s orphanage to shelter those who had no refuge.
“So we decided there was a need to put up an orphanage and a rescue center. That area in Kwale County, we have a lot of cases of defilement, rescued girls from trafficking, forced marriages, abandoned children, so we built an orphanage for girls,” Ali Swaleh says.
The center which also offers free healthcare because it has a hospital and education through the school to the locals now has over 80 girls sheltered there while attending school which was constructed in 2018.
On one side of the complex, there is a modern school currently with pupils in grade three and it is equipped with a books library and a computer lab to help the girls acquire the best skills that they need in life.
“For those who are referred here by the courts, once we have gotten green light that they can go to school, we take them to school, but if we feel like they’re really struggling and nothing is coming out of it, then we give them an option of choosing something else. We try to bring in a lot of activities. We get people who come here to teach them drama,” says Fatma Bakthir, the Chief Executive Officer at the center.
Swaleh has received immense support from his family, some of whom are working full-time at the center. Miss Fatma Bakthir is among those. Despite having studied law, she decided to dedicate her time to these young girls. She says they want the girls to get the necessary knowledge that can equip them in life and help them after they leave the center.
“What we do for someone who is academically not able to comprehend whatever she’s being taught in school, we give them an option. We do have girls who go to the polytechnic for tailoring and they are really good,” Fatma says.
They also have a football pitch and a music room where girls can hone their various skills be it in playing soccer or singing. This has helped them remain active as well as being creative.
But there are also other challenges that have emerged at this center that needed swift action from the administrators. Some have in the past tried to embark on suicidal missions, luckily due to the hawk-eyed matrons and motherly instincts, such lonely missions were quickly aborted.
“Our girls go through a lot, you know as a lady we need a lot of attention and love. And what I got to know is that they go through a lot of mental health issues. They have self-esteem issues, they are not aware of themselves. Sometimes a girl would come to me requesting for a cream to bleach their skin, and I ask them why would you want to lighten up yourself, and they would tell me I do not look pretty,” Fatma submits.
“Since they have gone through tough ordeals, we do counseling on all the girls. Whether you’re fit or not, we do counseling because most of them, especially the big ones, when I say big, I mean 15-17 years, they have that tough cover that when you ask normal questions, they will say they are fine. They all go through psychological counseling, a minimum of four sessions per girl,” submits Hawa Wangeci Mwangi, the Manager at the Rescue Center.
Mwana-asha Rashid Juma is a 15-year-old girl, she is bubbly and says she cannot imagine any other place to live other than at the center.
“I am happy to be here because when I came in 2019, I was younger. I have lived here and made friends. I wasn’t in school then but now I am in school. What we need we get, we have people taking care of us like their own biological children. We are loved, we play and eat together as a family.”
But that comfort has also come with its fair share of challenges. It is against the law to keep a person who is eighteen years old in a rescue center.
Mwangi says some of the girls, when they hit 18 years, the age at which they are supposed to exit the center, they refuse to go because the place is the only home that they have known for years.
Mr. Swaleh who has single-handedly funded this center since its inception is calling upon the Kenyan government to process its registration to be able to access funds from those who are willing to provide sponsorship.
Sponsors from the United States stepped in to construct a boy’s orphanage after visiting the center. The orphanage is almost complete and it will be opened in October this year if the contractor strictly follows the timelines. Swaleh says he cannot access financial help from elsewhere to run the complex at the moment and until then he will continue to dig deeper into his pockets to save the girl child.