Caring for Unaccompanied Children: Lessons From My Native Country of Zambia

Kelvin Kings Mulembe | October 24, 2014

Kelvin, during his time working with Children in Crisis. Photo: Courtesy Kelvin Kings Mulembe

Kelvin, during his time working with Children in Crisis. Photo: Courtesy Kelvin Kings Mulembe

As I have witnessed the plight of Central American children fleeing violence to the U.S. and throughout the region, it has brought up painful memories in my own life. The issue feels like déjà vu, because it reminds me of my own personal encounters with unaccompanied children fleeing to my home country of Zambia. I witnessed children fleeing the Rwandan genocide, and escaping violence and hunger in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

When I lived in Zambia, I met children as young as 4-years-old who were forced to make treacherous journeys through militia and gang controlled territories. They risked their lives to find safety by crossing through national parks filled with wild animals to escape the horrors in their home countries.

My work with local groups including Children in Crisis, Advocacy for Child Justice, and the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect enabled me to learn first hand about the harsh realities that most of these migrant and vulnerable children were fleeing. Not surprisingly, most of these children suffered from post traumatic stress disorder after witnessing horrific violence, including entire families being butchered, mothers raped, and older siblings conscripted into rebel militias and forced into the sex trade.

Despite Zambia being a relatively small country, I was deeply moved by its willingness to welcome and help refugees. Zambia is the size of Texas with 14.6 million people and hosts close to 52,200 refugees, who mostly reside in two refugee settlements. With their limited resources, the Zambian government, UN agencies and churches do their best to facilitate the humanitarian support, transition and integration of unaccompanied children. The focus always is comprehensive psychosocial support for these children, and where possible, family reunification. Each child is interviewed by professionally trained social workers and assessed by medical personnel. And efforts are made to interview children in a language they use, bearing in mind the child’s culture and gender.

The values of Ubuntu, “I am, because we are” is a dominant theme in many African cultures, and helps us overcome the xenophobia that often characterizes migration. While some hostility may be linked to local communities wanting to have a say in the relocation of children to their neighborhoods, the U.S. situation appears to also be underscored by a fear over resources and even a latent racism.

Yet it is no secret that Zambia faces significantly more economic hardship than the U.S., and I am amazed at how my native country has repeatedly opened its arms to refugees. The government and international community have professionalized the care for unaccompanied children. It makes me wonder how a super-power like the U.S. – a country of more than 300 million that often claims to be the greatest nation in the world – can threaten to deport these children without due process and without living up to U.S. and international humanitarian laws that are designed to protect these children from harm

A country as large and as wealthy as the U.S. should be able to handle 66,000 immigrant children without cause for alarm. If we deny these children their right to have their case and story fully heard by an immigration judge – just as the bi-partisan Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) requires – then are we willing to risk the reality that we may be deporting these innocent children back to their death?

Absent from the public narrative is an honest conversation on the root causes. The situations in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador has been deteriorating for years, a result of bad trade policies, government corruption, racism against indigenous populations and gang violence. The U.S. history of military intervention and free trade policies in the region are significant contributors to these root causes.

Some lawmakers have been calling for the rollback of protections intended to safeguard trafficking victims and other vulnerable children. The Department of Homeland Security and White House officials want the discretion to streamline the procedure for deporting more children.

We need to continue to remind our elected leaders that the faith community will continue to fight for the protection of children. We will not stand idly by while vulnerable children are deported back to the violence and exploitation that they sought to escape. I believe that this nation can and must do better – and even learn from what may seem like an unlikely example: my native country of Zambia.

Sign this petition today to urge our elected leaders to maintain protections and increase funding for legal services.

Kelvin Kings Mulembe is an Urban Ministry Fellow and finishing his Master of Divinity at Wesley Theological Seminary. He has worked in both the U.S. and Africa with ten years of field and educational experience in international development, human rights law and child protection, HIV and AIDS, poverty and Social Justice.