A voice for African children

Sometimes people leave steady jobs to set up their own business,
taking a risk in the hope of making their fortune. But when Debbie
Ariyo left her job as a policy officer in the civil service, her
only objective was to reduce children’s suffering. It’s
now nearly three years since Ariyo started a career break from the
Department for Trade and Industry to set up Africans Unite against
Child Abuse (Afruca). And although the organisation has had a big
impact both in the UK and Nigeria, Ariyo, who has now resigned from
the civil service, is still unpaid.

So what propelled her to take such a step? “The first reason was
that I felt something had to be done to raise awareness about the
different issues confronting African children here in the UK. There
was so much publicity at the time about the experiences, and
deaths, of children like Damilola Taylor and Victoria Climbié,
at the hands either of other young people or even adults.

“The second reason was that I was very keen to do something in
Africa to help children. But living in the UK I asked myself what
was the point of going all the way to Africa if we can’t do
anything about what is happening here. I wanted to do it my spare
time but there was a lot of demand in a short space of time.”

Ariyo was born in the UK but was brought up in Nigeria,
returning in 1990 as a graduate when she joined the civil service.
She worked in policy in four different government departments
before founding Afruca, and since then has been on the steepest of
learning curves.

Fundraising has been one skill she’s had to acquire
quickly. Afruca receives money from the Children’s Fund and
Network Fund, and several private trusts. “It is a very demanding
task. We hit the ground running because there was so much to do.
I’ve had to learn very quickly about writing proposals for
funding but I think we are on the right track. We have to reapply
every year for small grants but now we have a track record and
we’re ready to apply for larger grants. Anyone giving us
money will know it will be well spent.”

Afruca quickly found its advice and views were in demand with
local authorities and central government. Ariyo was invited by Lord
Laming to attend one of the special seminars held as part of his
inquiry into Victoria Climbié’s death, but social
service departments and the police were also asking for assistance
with cases they were dealing with.

At Afruca’s first conference in May 2001, it became clear
that the organisation would need to work on several fronts.
Victoria Climbié’s case highlighted the dangers facing
children being brought into the UK by “guardians”. Ariyo believes
that hundreds of children are being brought from Nigeria and other
African countries every year, most of them sent to work as domestic
servants. These children, typically aged between 11 and 15, are
being brought in on false passports, or genuine passports belonging
to a different child. They are not attending school and are at the
mercy of their host families who use them to look after younger
children while the adults study or work.

“The children most at risk are not unaccompanied children
because they can be rescued at the point of entry. The children
most at risk are those with an adult purporting to be a guardian,
auntie or parent who can do whatever they like with that child
without anybody knowing it.” Because of poverty at home people are
keen to give their children the chance of a better life, and
believe that coming to Europe will give them that life. “If someone
like me offered to help them look after their child by bringing the
child to Europe, they would let the child go thinking that
everything will be fine.

“There are many people who are looking after other
people’s children well, but the system is open to
exploitation. If you had it in mind to hurt a child this would be
an easy way to do it. That is why we have been back to Nigeria to
publicise what we call the “better life syndrome” – and encourage
parents to be aware of the dangers.”

Ariyo is pressing the government to alert local authorities to
these children and the need to identify them, to monitor their
welfare and check the suitability of the adults looking after them.
These are privately fostered children, but they are more difficult
to identify than African children living in the suburbs with white
families. They are not at school, and they are living with black
families in multi-racial neighbourhoods, but are just as much in
need of protection.

But as well as these hidden children, newly arrived African
children living with their own families in the UK also face many
challenges. “Children come from an environment where there are
rules and regulations, and you are expected to be respectful. They
come to a new environment where there are far fewer rules and where
speaking English becomes a problem all of a sudden. They are
speaking English but no one can understand what they are saying, or
people are actually laughing at the way they speak English.

“Many of these children feel they have had a very good
upbringing in Africa, they may have been to some of the best
schools out there. Now coming here for some strange reason they
find themselves going to some of the poorest schools where the
quality of education is extremely low.

“And yet they are still seen as outsiders, as inferior people.
They can’t handle the discrimination and racism, and some
children just lose it. They become angry, and reckless, take it out
on other young people and get excluded from school. Or they might
try to prove they belong by joining cults or gangs and getting into

In response to this need, Afruca has piloted a series of
“induction” sessions for recently arrived African children in
secondary schools in Islington, north London, where the
organisation is based. The sessions lasted two days, and included
assertiveness training and communications skills, as well as giving
the young people a chance to share their experiences and learn from
each other about ways of dealing with difficult situations. “If we
can let them talk about their experiences and let them know that
they are not alone, they can gain strength from that,” says

Ariyo ran the sessions herself with volunteer helpers, and in
the process discovered a need for more information and support for
the children’s families. “We had children saying their
parents beat them a lot. Of course many recently arrived parents
are also finding it difficult to cope. In Nigeria, or Ghana, or
wherever they have come from, things are done very differently.
They arrive here, they are having to deal with immigration issues,
with housing issues, with employment issues and on top of this you
have a child who is experiencing difficulties at school.

“People feel that there is no control over children in this
country compared with where they come from. If they beat their
children here they can be taken to court and even lose the

Afruca is now planning a series of induction sessions for
parents, and inviting the police and social services to talk to
them. “We want parents to know what the rules are – what you can do
and what you can’t, and if you have a problem with your child
where you can go for help.”

Ariyo might not know how she’s going to pay her mortgage
month my month, but she is proud of what she’s done. “It was
a shock to me when we started that there was no organisation
looking at the issue of abuse of African children. Now our
viewpoint is respected. It means we can influence what is
happening, which you need to do if you want to change things. We
are here as the voice of African children.”

See www.afruca.org

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