At Christmas time our usually motto is: “No child should be left out in the streets on Christmas Day!” So we try to alert our friends in the neighbourhood, in the parish and in the Chemin Neuf Community, hoping that they might welcome one of the street children for Christmas Day.
We started by buying new clothes in order that everyone could find some joy and dignity on that day.
On Christmas Eve all the children dressed smartly and walked together to the Saint Christine Parish to take part in the 6pm Mass. There were 53 children this year, a sizeable group in the church. To start with they were a bit overawed by the big building. But the priest welcomed them warmly and spoke of his joy at having them there. So they were able to sing and dance with the other faithful present, then go and admire the Christmas crib with Baby Jesus on the straw in the manger. At the end of Mass they enjoyed a sweet drink and a piece of cake before walking back down to the centre and sleep until the next morning.
On Christmas Day, everyone, again smartly dressed, gathered in the playground of the Saint Christine School to meet the families that had offered to invite them. Some children were a bit fearful: “Will they beat us and insult us like our own families do?” But we reassured them, and just about everyone got an invitation into a family. The four young people who didn’t were invited to share Christmas meal with the Chemin Neuf Community.
From 5pm onwards families started to bring the children back and they were very happy. They told us about their day and how they felt at ease in their family: “I received a warm welcome.” “It was as if the whole family was expecting me!” “First they showed me around their house, even the bedrooms!” “I ate really well!” “I ate good meat!” “I ate duck for the first time!” “I had a sweet drink!” “Me, I had two!” “Me I had a sweet drink out of a big glass bottle, not plastic!” “Me, I still have a sweet drink with me here!” “I sat down on an armchair, they gave me a remote and I could choose to watch the TV channel I wanted!” “I had a good game with the children in the house, even with bangers!” “I learned to ride a bike!” “They bought me balls!” “They gave me a new shirt!” “I never ate so much in my life! After the meal they let me use the bed of one of the boys in the house and I had a nap!” “They gave me some advice and invited me to return on New Year’s Day!” “The children of that family speak French. I’d like to stay there and learn French too!”
As for the four that shared the meal with the Chemin Neuf Community they told us that they had a great welcome, they ate a lot, and they felt that they had become just like the Community brothers except they don’t wear the cross! One of the families told us that they were very moved when they asked to child to say the prayer before the meal because he prayed: “Thank you, Lord, for giving me an armchair to sit on today!” But the story that touched us most was that of Junior. He was welcomed into the family of one of our female educators. At the end of the day that mother accompanied him back to the centre. But next morning when she woke up at 6am, a great surprise awaited them: the child was there! He had walked back and spent the night in front of their door. The affection he had received had been so strong for him that he had found the way back to return to the family, but hadn’t dared disturb them in the middle of the night! What a call!
However there was unfortunately a sadder story, that of a handicapped girl that had been warmly welcomed at first by the mother, but that mother had had to go out, and the other people in the house just ignored her. They gave her food in a bag, and she had to walk back by herself. Moreover the people in the house suspected her to have stolen a telephone and told her so. Later the mother, who was told about that situation, came to our centre to ask the girl’s forgiveness.
On 31st December we celebrated the festival of New Year with all the children and the educators at the centre for NYB girls. Everyone wore smart new clothes. The party began with a Mass celebrated by a young priest ordained in 2016, Father Gaylord. His Scripture passage was the story of Joseph sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, but who later became prime minister in that country. So he told the children that they could nurture hope for a future like Joseph’s, they all had talents with which the Lord wanted to accomplish great things. The children were happy to pray, sing, and receive the blessing of the New Year.
This was followed by the festive meal: chicken, pondu (cassava leaves) and rice. The girls had also prepared small tasty things: doughnuts, peanuts, popcorn… There was a bottle of sweet drink for everyone. Then the music invited the children to dance in ways that they like so that everybody was able to display their talent and express their joy!
On 1st January in the morning, once again everybody wore their best clothes to wish a happy New Year to their family. For weeks beforehand the children had prepared greetings cards for their family to wish them the best, to ask their forgiveness, to express their wish to return home… Traditionally New Year’s Day is a day for family unity, so we encouraged all the children to go and visit their family, giving them money for transport if their family was some distance away from the Centre. The only children who stayed at the Centre were the four youngest little boys and a few girls who had no address for their family. The boys were invited to the festive meal at the Chemin Neuf community, and the girls to the family of the manageress of girls’ centre. It was moving to see how those four little boys, aged between 8 and 10, who had had no experience of family life, were so warmly welcomed by the brothers and sisters of the Community.
Many went back to the families that had welcomed them on Christmas Day. One of the mothers telephoned us to tell us that the boy they had invited on Christmas Day had arrived. They hadn’t invited him in fact, but the child had felt so welcome with them that he had returned. And the family once again received him warmly.
Among those children who went to wish a happy new year in their family we had some reactions:
- Didier Noua said that he was welcomed by his father and his new wife. He invited him to share the family’s meal and stay overnight, but the next day his father gave him a little money and told him to go away again, saying that he could visit again, and that he would visit the Centre himself.
- François got a good welcome from his brothers and sisters, his mother told him that there would always be a place for him at home.
- Jean-Paul had a great festive time in his family and left in secret because his dad really wanted him to keep him there, but he was ready to come back.
- Djodjo went to see his aunt who promised to talk to his mother in order to prepare for his return.
- Eric had a good family welcome at his aunt’s, he stayed overnight with her. He got back next day to the Centre to ask one of the educators to reunify him officially with his family, and give him some clothes, which we did.
- Samuel got chased away by his father who didn’t want to see him but on the way he met one of his cousins that he hadn’t seen for three years, who gave him the telephone number of his father who might help him. We called this gentleman ourselves: he seems ready to welcome the child and we are going to meet him.
- Plamedi told us that he was welcomed and that his father was going to see the people in charge of the Centre.
- Fortunat apparently stayed home. A member of his family telephoned one of the educators to inform us that the child had stayed there. We just have to check that out.
- Isaac stayed overnight in the family home and his grandfather invited him to return the following Sunday.
- Dieudonné was proud to have had the courage to go back home even if there was nobody there. He went back in the streets to celebrate.
- Moïse was able to give his mum a kiss. She welcomed him and asked him to stay but the child preferred to go back to his friends in the streets to celebrate.
- Gédéon got to celebrate with his uncle but he was afraid to stay because of the accusations made by his uncle’s wife.
Others did not have the courage to go to their family:
- Kelly was afraid to go to see his family by himself so he preferred to go back to the family that had welcomed him on Christmas Day.
- Ephraïm wanted to go but he hesitated and set out late. Someone stole his new clothes on the way and he was scared to go on.
- Cedric was afraid of his grandfather and stayed in the streets with some friends.
- Filou preferred to stay drinking whisky with his friends in the streets.
- Junior was afraid to go because his father had refused to acknowledge him as his son, and so where could he go?
- Dieu Merci said that he could not go back home to his family because they accuse him of being a sorcerer, but he went back to the Christmas Day family.
- Guélord had been so pleased by the welcome given my Mother Mimi and her family on Christmas Day that he decided to return to her rather than to his own family. As Mother Mimi’s children had gone away to another member of their family, he ended up that day being the spoiled child!
- Christian knows that there is no one at home to welcome him so he stayed on the roundabout.
So that is what the children have told us. Some of them have been able to believe that they are loved but others have not had that experience yet. New possibilities have opened up: we will just have to explore them further…