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Most children in Mombasa, Kenya take advantage of free primary education, enjoy playing football in sandy parks, and have ambitions of being a doctor, lawyer, or business leader. But during my time working for a local NGO, Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI), I have found many “street kids” who face the realities of the legal system after being unjustly charged with ‘loitering’ or falsely accused of stealing. Unfortunately, the justice system in Kenya lacks an institution to handle juvenile cases, so organizations like MUHURI are stepping in to direct children out of adult prisons during the trial process and provide them with legal assistance.
A Remand Home for Children was recently constructed just outside of Mombasa city, helping to house youth under 16 for the duration of their trials. Situated on a sand lot less than ½ an acre, it consists only of 2 large cinder-block buildings and 2 more under slow construction – an atmosphere that lacks the hope or encouragement necessary to motivate troubled children. After speaking with the Home manager and learning of MUHURI’s work, it is not difficult to understand the challenges of finding volunteer teachers to instruct 65 remanded kids or provide beneficial activities without proper facilities. In order to ensure time in the Remand Home is constructive and used to jumpstart their return into the community, I have constructed a project to renovate the ‘dining hall’ into a multi-functional room, complete with a chalkboard, removable tables, and shelving for storage of art supplies and school materials for youth.
My first visit to the home was shortly after MUHURI provided paper and pencils for kids to draw with, and I have never seen young people so excited to show off their artistic skill: I was overwhelmed with great sketches and pictures about the prevention of AIDS or saying no to drugs. Not only did this small contribution provide hours of entertainment, but also gave distressed teens a creative outlet for frustrations with challenges in their lives. It is our hope that involving these bright, talented youth in reconstructing the dining hall, offering them the chance to draw murals and help repaint the facility, we can offer something more than a physical structure for gathering: we want this space to provide the type of motivation, education, and information (through Human Rights Workshop) that the children of Mombasa need to reintegrate into the community.
After the project is complete, we will work to secure regular visitors – leaders from the surrounding area – to come speak and support the remand children through their trials. Interviews with the youth show that one of the most encouraging aspects of their week comes with representatives of MUHURI walk through the gate, staying to talk about the conditions of their stay or status of their trials. Bringing teachers, aid workers, or successful community members into the lives of these enthusiastic, but misguided, children is the best remedy to a history of bad experiences. With the addition of books and other school supplies, the renovations of the dining hall will also facilitate a peer-educational atmosphere where kids can help one another with studies, ensuring they do not fall behind in school. Experience tells us that such proactive approaches will help stop the cycle of repeat offenders that often plague Kenyan youth.