Charity's work to support children orphaned as a result of Covid
- Credit: Hope and Homes for Children
For more than 25 years, Beccles-born former Army officer Colonel Mark Cook has worked to save children from being thrown into orphanages across the world.
From the bomb-blasted streets of Bosnia in the 1990s to the state institutions of post-Communist eastern Europe, readers have backed Col Cook's efforts to find a better option for hundreds of thousands of young people.
But this year has been the most desperate of all, thanks to deaths as a result of the Covid pandemic which have left children abandoned or forced into orphanages.
As many as two million children have been left in the situation, according to research obtained by his international charity, Hope and Homes for Children (HHC).
He predicts this Christmas will be the most difficult he has known for youngsters in Covid-ravaged countries as far apart as India and Romania.
“In over a quarter of a century, I have never known it so bad," he said.
“For every two Covid deaths, one child becomes a Covid orphan, and so far, the virus has robbed nearly two million children worldwide of the mothers, fathers or grandparents who cared for them. And this number is growing daily.
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“Tragically, millions more children are living in families stretched to breaking point due to lockdowns and the financial fallout of the pandemic.
"At risk of hunger, homelessness, exploitation and being locked up in orphanages, these children are falling to the bottom of everyone’s list. But not ours."
For more than two decades, the charity has been closing down orphanages across the world and finding families for the children there, as well as supporting vulnerable children in their own homes.
Readers of this newspaper have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to support that work, which began at the height of the 1990s civil war in which ex-Ghurkha officer Col Cook and his wife Caroline risked their lives to bring aid to orphans trapped in the capital, Sarajevo, where snipers used civilians for target practice.
That aid has since extended to countries across the globe, from Africa to Asia and across Europe, closing hundreds of orphanages and bringing the love of a real family to many thousands of youngsters.
But, despite working in countries facing war and economic collapse, Col Cook fears that the pandemic will make this Christmas the worst for countless vulnerable children.
“Child protection systems are beyond capacity and hidden problems like domestic abuse are being ignored," he said, "while our staff are constantly having to turn away those who need our help.
“But with the help of EDP readers, HHC’s army of social workers won’t have to turn away another desperate family, or desperate Covid orphan.”
Among these children is Sonia, 11, who lost her father to Covid, which nearly stole her childhood too.
Sonia lives on the other side of the world in north-east India's Jharkhand State with her mother, Radha, baby brother and grandfather. Last May, she lost her father Ravi, the sole breadwinner, to Covid, plunging the family into financial desperation.
“Our world turned upside down,” her mother said. “I had no idea how to support my family without my husband. There aren’t any nursery or childcare services available in my village. And on top of this, the schools were closed due to Covid, so Sonia was sent home from school.”
With her mother having to go out each day on a desperate search for work, Sonia spent long periods alone, at risk of being snatched away by roving gangs for child marriage, child labour or prostitution.
It came as she also tried to come to terms with the traumatic loss of her father.
Unable to find work, Radha considered making the heart-breaking decision to send Sonia to an orphanage.
But decades of research by HHC show that some orphanages expose children to neglect, torture, sexual abuse and even trafficking.
Children who survive a childhood in an orphanage are three times more likely to report poor health as adults than those who grow up with families; 23pc end up homeless; 50pc are in contact with the law and 90pc are unprepared for independent living.
Col Cook said: “To feel safe and happy, to learn, develop and really thrive, all children need to know that they are loved, and they belong - they need families.
“It can be 10 times more cost effective to support struggling parents with social services than to fund orphanages.”
Determined to prevent Sonia from ending up in an orphanage, the charity's India team of community health experts stepped in to provided Radha with the support she needed to keep her family together this Christmas.
The team identifies vulnerable children at risk of ending up in orphanages. They also developed a new mobile app called KoboCollect, which rapidly speeds up the process of getting the right support to these families before it’s too late.
Thanks to HHC’s app, Preethi, a local community health expert, was able to support Sonia’s family.
“We submitted all the family's details and highlighted their case as a red flag, so the district administration was notified,” she said.
“Then we presented their case and successfully got support for Sonia’s education and got her mother onto the Widow’s Pension and Food Security Scheme.”
Preethi also helped enrol Sonia in a free government residential school nearby where she will be well looked after while her mother continues looking for work and can still see her family on the weekends and at home during holidays.
Radha said: “This support from Hope and Homes prevented me from losing Sonia, who is back at school now and we all are so happy.
“I will work hard to make sure that my children have everything they need, and whatever hardship they may face in their lives, I will always go the extra mile to support them.”
The charity is trying to help as many as possible – and asking EDP readers, once again, to provide much-needed support.
To donate, visit donate.hopeandhomes.org
£45 will help cover the costs to identify a child or family at risk of separation, while £90 will pay to train local professionals and volunteers on alternatives to orphanages.
Also, £133 will help monitor and provide follow-on support to a family we’ve managed to keep together.