ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire (February 27, 2012) — After a fight with his father, nine-year-old Junior Coulibaly left his house in a huff. It was a Friday afternoon in mid-January 2011. Nine months would pass before he would see his father again.
Junior was playing in his neighborhood of Yopougon, one of the country's largest slums, when conflict erupted—the result of tension that had been building since the presidential elections six weeks earlier.
"This neighborhood saw some of the worst of it," said Yassindou Coulibaly, Junior's father. "It was dangerous—particularly for men, so I had to leave, or risk being killed."
The post–election violence of 2011 separated many children from their families. Yet even in times of peace, children find themselves separated from their families for a variety of reasons.
This is particularly true in urban areas. Many children migrate to cities in search of work or education. Mostly, they come with their families, but sometimes they arrive by themselves, vulnerable to exploitation. And too often, these children find themselves excluded from the very opportunities they came for.
"While urban environments usually have more services, such as water, electricity, schools and health care, this does not mean that everyone has access to these services," explained Laetitia Bazzi, UNICEF Chief of Child Protection in Côte d'Ivoire. "This is particularly the case for migrating children who are extremely poor."
Children living in slums may leave home to escape these conditions, only to be faced by worse conditions on their own. "They have no parental support, and are often submitted to abusive treatment—sometimes in a work situation—or on the street," Bazzi said.
Junior found safety at the Centre Sauvetage d'Abidjan (the Abidjan Lifeboat Center) in downtown Abidjan. The program is managed by the Bureau International Catholique de l'enfance (BICE) and supported by UNICEF.
The conflict highlighted the issue of unaccompanied children, said Berté Kafiné, the center’s coordinator. "When the crisis hit, we had a huge influx of children here," she explained. "Some kids walked over 12 miles, fleeing the hotspots in the slums, only to become completely lost, and simply point themselves towards the city buildings. Others were brought in by strangers who found them in the street. And then others came from the rural areas—initially with their parents, until they became separated."
Kafiné and her team at the center offer stability for unaccompanied children, providing beds, meals, classes and recreation. And just as importantly, they offer psycho-social support services to help children deal with the stress caused by separation.
Workers at the Centre Sauvetage d'Abidjan accompany children through the judicial and administrative proceedings, with the goal of reuniting them with their families or placing them in safe and stable care.
"The reunion is often a happy one, but sometimes the child can have such negative memories of the separation. They can be re-traumatized," Kafiné said.
Other children may feel they no longer have a place at home; UNICEF and partners are working to ensure reunions are healthy and sustainable, sometimes assisting with school fees or providing psycho-social support for families.
Kafiné knows that city life can be very harsh for a child.
"In the city, it's every man for themselves," says Kafiné said. "Taking the hand of a neighbor's child is no longer instinctual. That is why we're here. And let me tell you, it makes a difference."
Back in a narrow cement courtyard in Abobo, Junior sat down for a meal with his family. His father said they no longer argue about schoolwork or chores.
“Something in him changed when he came home," said Coulibaly. "He is with me all the time, and he even helps out his little brother and sister with their schoolwork. It's like he wants to be here with all his heart. And that makes me so happy, so proud."