Empowered Youth = Resilient Youth

Organization leader standing in front of signVideo: Rafiki Callixte, Director of Les Enfants de Dieu Each year, Les Enfants de Dieu in Rwanda has an election season.

Young men, formerly living on the street, run an election campaign for a Minister position. As Ministers of Health, Education, Recreation, and others, they make decisions on how resources are used, how programs should be structured, and what policies guide behavior of the residents at the center. Their ideas and decisions shape the lives of more than 100 young men living in this residential center.

How is it that these young men came to hold so much responsibility and authority?

Les Enfants de Dieu evolved from a business that wanted to make a difference in their community into an organization that transforms the lives of young people who have spent years living on Kigali streets.

As a business, they provided material assistance to youth living on the street. When they realized that keeping youth on the street also kept them in a very difficult life, they established a residential center.  The center would provide holistic rehabilitation services to street children. Later, they embarked on a program to reintegrate the young men back into their families and the larger community. Les Enfants de Dieu was born.

So far, they have successfully reunited 127 children with their families.groups of boys waving

Les Enfants starts off by respecting each young person’s choice to come to the center. When they conduct outreach on the streets of Kigali, they let youth know about their center and the programs available there. Each young man has to find his own way to the center, demonstrating that he is making a choice and a commitment to be part of this community.

Their system of Ministries reinforces the center’s approach of respecting the voice and leadership of youth. Not just theoretical, but practically.

The Minister of Health noticed that a lot of the boys were frequently sick with malaria. He then developed a strategy to help prevent it. Working with his cabinet, they asked someone from the local government to come and teach them about malaria. The boys quickly identified that the nearby river was a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Working with the local government, they sprayed the area for mosquitoes.

They also worked with the director to buy mosquito nets and ensure that their clinic had malaria treatment drugs. By taking a holistic approach to solving this problem, the Minister of Health increased the young men’s knowledge to manage the situation. Today, if anyone tries to go to sleep outside of a mosquito net – you can be sure another young man will remind him to get under the net.

And that’s just one example of how the youth show leadership. When it was clear that a curfew was needed – it was the youth who discussed what was a reasonable hour to expect everyone to be in, and what time the gate would be closed. When the nurse noted that a number of youth were becoming sexually active, again, it was the youth who decided that the center should make condoms available. And when it was time to develop a program of support to transition into their families, the youth worked closely with social workers to develop a program that paid attention to the issues they knew would pose challenges to their successful reunification.

As you can see in the video, Firelight recently had the privilege of hosting the Director of Les Enfants de Dieu, Rafiki Callixte. It was his own life experience that helped to shape this program that respects and trusts youth to make the decisions that affect their lives. A momentary decision to forgive the person who tried to kill him during the Rwanda genocide, greatly affected Rafiki’s belief in the power of human kindness and the potential of youth to build a society of mutual caring.

That belief is reflected in the way that he leads the organization and in the lessons the young men learn living here.

And for each young person who makes the decision to come to Les Enfants, another life, family and community are forever changed.