When children are vulnerable – following war or disasters – it is often because they are left behind with only one parent. In many cases that is the mother. Bringing children up alone is a huge challenge. If there is no such thing as day care, single parents can face the impossible choice of looking after their children or going out to work. Countless single mothers battle against all the odds to keep their children. And we all know about the vital bond between mother and child.
But too rarely do we discuss the fathers. It seems we simply accept their absence from the story. We do not question whether they could be active agents in ending the harm caused by institutionalisation and the separation of children from their families.
Yet most of us cannot imagine what our lives would have been without our fathers. Among many gifts – some dubious, some less so – my father gave me the gift of music and even though he has been gone for seven years, every day I sing the songs in my head that we sang together in my childhood. And I have his eyes. And a somewhat haphazard sense of timing: it takes great discipline to stop myself setting out exactly 20 minutes too late for every meeting.
So today I think of, and celebrate, the many fathers I have worked with over the years who have fought relentlessly for their children.
Ibrahim, the father who fought his way from Syria, with his two little daughters, after his wife was killed in that country’s civil war. When his youngest girl became very sick, he did not give her up to the institution. He battled with authorities and bureaucracies in several countries – who did not know what to do with a Syrian refugee child who would die without medical treatment – until she received the specialised care she needed, to keep her alive, to help her to thrive. Her early experiences have left her with disabilities. But her father would never give her up. He is so proud of his two daughters. And his wife would be proud of him.
Mark, the 15-year-old father in England supporting his 15-year-old girlfriend after she became pregnant. Both had been seriously abused as children and placed in care. Both had moved from one children’s home to another. Both were determined their little boy would always have two parents who loved him. Even though they did not know where to start. Even though they themselves had never received parental love and care. Both became excellent parents, against all odds, and contrary to the prejudices of many who had told them to give up their child for adoption, and to ‘enjoy being teenagers’. Neither could enjoy life if they abandoned their child as they had been abandoned. For them it was not an option.
Abdul Rahman, the 21-year-old student in Sudan, whose girlfriend had become pregnant in a community where having a child outside marriage was punished with one hundred lashes. He wanted nothing more than to marry Amal and be a good father, but her parents thought him too poor and forced their daughter to put her baby in the orphanage. Still, the new parents fought for their child and fought to be together. And with the social worker’s help, persuaded her parents that their grandchild was their responsibility. Their daughter wanted her child. The young man wanted to do the right thing. And in the end, they married and became a family.
And last week, I met Adrian in Moldova. He and his wife, Elena, married in their twenties and celebrated together with extended family and friends in their rural community in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country. Their modest home is beautifully kept with a small vegetable garden, chicken coup and fragrant flowers. In spite of the country’s poverty, it seems idyllic. And yet the lines of worry and sadness on their faces become increasingly apparent as they recount the tales of the birth of their two children – the happiest and saddest moments of their lives. Angela and Codrut were born with intellectual disabilities. Adrian and Elena did not know what to do. As the children’s developmental delays became more apparent, their parents struggled through the snow for hours, with their children on their backs, to try to find a doctor who would diagnose them, who would advise them on what to do. The advice was always to put the children in an institution, but Adrian and Elena refused. Until the day came when the children should go to school and their parents were given the awful choice – either deny your children an education, or place them in the residential special school.
The institution was far away from home, but the parents came every Friday to take the children home for the weekend. Each time they arrived, the children waited anxiously at the gate, terrified their parents would not come. They screamed and cried on Sunday when they had to return to the institution again. Adrian told us how empty the house was without them. How little they slept each night, worrying what happened to their children in the institution. And then one day, our social workers came to see them, to tell them that the school in their village was going to become ‘inclusive’ – that it would begin to receive children with disabilities and provide them with education tailored to their individual needs.
We asked if Adrian and Elena would like their children to come home. They jumped at the chance. Adrian still worries – about the future, about what will happen to their children when he and Elena are gone. So I ask him, what is the happiest event that has happened since the children returned home from the institution five years ago. I imagine that a Christmas or a birthday has special significance. But his face lights up and with a glowing smile he says, “It is not some big event. It is every day. Seeing my son in the garden, feeding the chickens, my daughter walking among the flowers. Seeing how big they have grown. It is every moment with them that I cherish”.
If we are truly to end the separation of children from their families, we must celebrate the role of fathers and the silent battles they also fight, every day, for their children.