Driven by His Own Experience, a Young Nigerian Started Rescuing Street Children
The trajectory of James Okina’s life changed for the worse when in 2009, his parents separated. While his mother took his younger brother away with her, he and his older brother stayed with their often absent father.
Their father would often abuse them physically whenever he returned home. As a result, James started to spend more time on the streets of Calabar, a southern port city near the Cameroon border, and lost interest in his education. However, after several years on the streets, he had the wisdom to realize that it was not the kind of life he wanted for himself.
“I was happy with my freedom but I lacked guidance and was confused,” James told me. “There was no one to advise me. Together with the other kids, we moved around, stealing, and destroying property.”
James continued that way for three years. That was until Tochi, his cousin, came to live with him and his brother. His cousin used to reach out to young people in Lagos with reading materials and encouraged James to pursue greatness.
James was encouraged each time he talked with Tochi. Soon, he took his studies seriously and started performing well again in school. “He acted like a big brother and his lifestyle, particularly his faith in God, inspired me to get my act together,” James said. “The fact that he was focused and knowledgeable motivated me.”
While there is no comprehensive data on the total number of street children in Nigeria, the government estimates that there are 17.5 million orphans and vulnerable children nationwide. States like Lagos and Gombe are estimated to have over 100,000 street kids.
These children face several challenges to their health and development and it is estimated that 95% of orphans and vulnerable children do not receive any type of medical, emotional, social, material, or school-related assistance. An additional 10 million children are said to be out of school, the highest in sub-Saharan Africa.
What is most worrying is that while national laws exist to protect children against all forms of abuse in Nigeria, innocent children still face inhuman treatment due to poor implementation and a lack of awareness.
Although James’ life eventually turned out for the better, he could not turn a blind eye to the challenges other children on the streets face. So he began to interact with other children he came across in his immediate environment.
“I was frustrated by the incessant assigning of blame by adults who are responsible for these street children,” James said. “And so I concluded that at a time when people tend to hold the government or the clergy responsible for change in the society, I could become the priest on the street.”
Among these children was Frederick, a 13-year-old boy whom he had met at a football match the year he graduated from secondary school. His mother, with whom he shared a room had left eight months earlier so he had to fend for himself. Together with his friend Kelvin, they both survived by begging during the day and performing in bars at night.
“I started visiting and spending time with them,” James said. “We connected because of the conversation we had, but not about the food and the money I gave them. The more we talked, the more I felt I had to do more.”
Although he did not have much money, he knew that Frederick and Kelvin needed help. So, he spoke to everyone within earshot about the problem. Among those he spoke to was a man in his church, Inyang Edem, who agreed to assist with taking care of the boys.
“Inyang agreed to donate the fees and other requirements for Frederick and Kelvin’s education and after I got these two kids back into school, I couldn’t avoid it, I got myself more and more invested.”
Among the leading causes of children resorting to begging, sleeping, and stealing to survive on the streets, James said, are poor parenting, stigmatization, and peer pressure. For James, parenting goes beyond just giving birth to a child.
“When a child for reasons ranging from poverty to illiteracy is forced to find refuge on the streets, this affects the child’s psychology and in turn makes their rehabilitation a lot more difficult.”
In 2014, James who was now 15, and driven by his experiences, started Street Priests, a youth-led social enterprise primarily operating in Calabar. The vision is to transform the lives of street children and turn their potential into assets for society.
Street Priests has six thematic programs it implements in response to the challenge of children on the streets, including: stakeholders’ management, feeding the hungry, advocacy and community outreach, a “back to school” scholarship program, child care, and skills training.
Street Priests runs daily programs and activities which helps to improve the intellectual skills of the children, boost their knowledge of good life hacks, prepare them for a formal school setting, and hopefully, eventual reintegration back into society and off the streets.
With its scholarship program, Street Priests facilitates access to quality education through a scholarship program for both children on the streets and at-risk children. James says the process is crucial as it involves a lot of mental, emotional, and physical evaluation of the children to ensure that they are ready for the journey that lies ahead of them.
Because of its understanding that proper nutrition is an important aspect of every child’s development, Street Priests provides daily meals for the children and organizes large food drives which serve large areas of Calabar.
“Through our Individual Child Care Team (ICCT), Street Priests tracks, reunites, and follows up on the progress of children with their families after proper background research and evaluation as to why the child ended up on the street,” said Miracle Emmanuel, the Chief Storyteller at Street Priests.
Under the advocacy program, Street Priests organizes seminars and conferences to ensure that the rights of children are protected through their partnership with organizations and relevant agencies such as the Basic Rights Counsel Initiative (BRCI).
With stakeholders’ management, Street Priests facilitates programs to equip volunteers with the relevant knowledge and skills that improve their intellectual and emotional ability to serve the children. These programs range from seminars and mini-conferences to digital skills training and leisure programs to boost an all-around capacity for the work they do.
Since 2014, Street Priests has impacted over 17,078 children through its programs and projects. It has also reunited 19 children with their families while 256 children have been enrolled in school.
As part of its efforts to give children a better life, in 2020, Street Priests executed a research project, “No Existe,” in partnership with the U.S.-based Bleed Red Campaign. The aim, according to James, was to study the problem of street children in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and the United States.
“The Dominican Republic research was published and presented at Oxford University in England, and Lynn University in the United States,” Miracle said, adding that Street Priests has also trained and engaged over 400 volunteers via its volunteer network.
Although Street Priests has raised over $70,000 since its inception, limited resources remain a major challenge for the group.
“Seeing that the work we do cuts across different areas and layers, the resources required to tackle these challenges, including personnel, material, and financial resources are enormous,” Miracle said.
Miracle adds that Street Priests face another challenge of housing the children as most find it difficult being confined in a space and having to adhere to rules after they have been exposed to a certain level of freedom.
“When we started, we tried housing them through the aid of well-meaning individuals who were willing to lend a helping hand at the time but it wasn’t productive.”
He explained that Street Priests tries to house some children with SYDRI (Society for Youth Development Rescue Initiative), a transitional and rehabilitation home that offers foster care to children on the streets and helps to reintegrate them back into their families.
“And we only do so with the children who are really interested in going back home and leaving the streets behind. So, it makes it easier to manage the situation. As we expand, we will look into that and see what steps we can implement to help the housing process.”
Part of what Street Priests also plans to do is spread its wings to other parts of Nigeria and the world at large at it would lead to an increase in volunteers, partners, donors, resources, and impact rate.
“The dream is bigger than we are but we are resilient and eager to see a society that is inclusive of everyone, giving a fair chance to all no matter how small or great they may be,” Miracle said.
If you wish to support Street Priests, click here.