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What it Really Means to Spend Christmas in an Orphanage

Christmas has been cancelled due to the Coronavirus. For fear of harming vulnerable family members, many of us will not see our loved ones. Many older people will spend Christmas alone for the first time in their lives. We all understand why, but not being able to hug and be close to the ones we love is painful.

Imagine, therefore, if that is your experience every year of your life. For children in orphanages around the world, Christmas is worse than most days. In some of the orphanages I have helped to close over the years, personnel make an effort, helping children make decorations and singing carols. But most children were acutely aware that Christmas is about family. Inside the walls of the orphanage, Christmas has a hollow ring. There are rarely individual presents. In some institutions, members of the community brought gifts, but the children never received them. In others, children received gifts inappropriate for their age – a 15-year-old opening a package in excitement, only to find a baby’s rattle. And on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, personnel barely disguised their annoyance at being away from their own children.

One Christmas, I went to a residential special school that the authorities had asked me to help close. We were in the early stages and none of the children had yet left the institution. So on Christmas day, I took sweets to the 270 children, but it was immediately obvious that my small gesture was almost worse than nothing. The heating was broken and it was minus 25 outside; children lay shivering in their beds, dressed in all their clothes, wrapped in threadbare blankets. They told me they were hungry. Many sweets hung from the Christmas tree and I was surprised these hungry children had not devoured them. But the sweets had been removed from their wrappers and replaced with sticks of chalk.

Staff on duty watched the clock, impatient for their shifts to end. Children watched TV – the traditional family Christmas they were supposed to enjoy. The atmosphere was of lethargy, resentment and a slow burning anger. For me, it renewed the urgency of getting the children out of there, back to the community. By the next Christmas, all the children were living in families.

Another country, another Christmas. I had helped the government close what it considered to be its worst institution, housing 250 children and adults with disabilities. The mortality rate had been high and some children with challenging behaviours were routinely tied up, ostensibly to prevent them from harming themselves or others. In 18 months, we had established community support services, foster families and small group homes for all the children and adults. Most were doing really well. But in one small group home, a terrible incident happened. The authorities reacted in panic and committed all the children to the psychiatric hospital. There was no children’s wing, so they were locked in with adults – and very little supervision.

As soon as we were permitted, we visited the girls. As wardens unlocked a series of gates and internal doors, we were led through dank, stinking, freezing cold corridors into the main hall. Paint peeled from the walls. The patients – skeletal figures dressed in filthy rags – wandered aimlessly around with vacant stares, clearly over-medicated. A warden momentarily put down a bucket of food waste and an emaciated woman immediately threw herself to the floor, gobbling the slop as quickly as she could.

Finally, the warden unlocked a dormitory, where the girls lived with 30 adult women. They had all lost weight, their heads were shaven and they were filthy. Immediately they saw us, they ran towards us, clinging in terror, crying and begging us to take them home. We calmed them down as best we could. We had brought them small gifts – soft toys to cuddle at night.

We tried to explain that we were doing everything possible to get them out of hospital, but that it would take time. They could not understand what they had done wrong, why they were being punished. Not much we could say would comfort them, so we started to sing Christmas carols. For the next hour, the girls were transported, singing their favourites at the tops of their voices, holding each other close as they sang. For a while, their eyes were smiling and the terror of the psychiatric ward was forgotten. Too soon, the warden told us we must leave. It was hard to say goodbye to the girls, but we promised to return soon. They were calmer as we left, with traces of smiles on their faces.

As we exited the room back to the main hall, we were astonished to find a crowd of patients huddled around the dormitory door, with more than a hundred beyond them in the main hall. As we moved through the crowd, many of them took our hands, saying “thank you, thank you”. One man said, “we haven’t heard singing for years”.

I had known for some time that many children, particularly those with disabilities, often spent their adult lives in psychiatric hospitals. Until that Christmas, I had not truly understood the horror of such a life sentence. It is one of the moments that spurred me on to end the institutionalisation of children, once and for all.

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