SOS Mothers: Giving hope, love and care for orphaned children.
They say a child's innocence leaves him free to enjoy life the way few adults can. But for many around the world left orphaned by conflict, disease and natural disasters, this innocence has been stripped away.
The recent crisis in Syria and the Ebola outbreak in west Africa have sparked a surge in the number of children left orphaned or at risk of being orphaned. The situation is so stark it has recently been termed "an emergency" by a Dubai-based expert.
In an interview with Khaleej Times, Managing Director for SOS Children's Villages International Gulf Area Office in Dubai, Nicole Nassar, said though it is hard to pinpoint which region is most affected by child abandonment, the current situation in Syria, Palestine and Gaza means immediate relief work is vital in this region.
"The ongoing crisis being witnessed in these Gulf countries means work is urgent. It is an emergency."
Nassar said depending on the type of situation a child has been subjected to, SOS Children's Village's area of focus differs.
"In response to Ebola-affected countries, SOS Children's Villages have set up pop-up healthcare clinics to help ease the problem, and in Syria we have erected childcare protection centres."
With its Gulf Area Office recently opening in Dubai, SOS Children's Villages is a global federation that works to prevent family breakdown and protect children who have lost parental care. Today, it houses 25 villages in nine Mena countries.
A mother's love inspires
A typical day for SOS mother Fyroz Kurdeyeh usually starts at 6am. Living in Damascus, Syria, she looks after four children: 8-year-old twin boys, a 12-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl. Housed at a newly-built SOS village home, all four children are Syrian natives and have been under mother Kurdeyeh's care for one month.
"I have been with SOS Children's Villages for six years. I previously worked in homes as an SOS aunt, but now I am a mother," she tells Khaleej Times through her translator.
With the arrival of several more children over the next month, mother Kurdeyeh says she expects to have about 10 children living under her roof.
Though a daunting number for any parent, mother Kurdeyeh says caring is part of her nature.
"The reason I became an SOS mother is because of my own mother. She gave me so much love and care. I wanted to be able to provide that to children who haven't had such an experience."
Tragically, three of mother Kurdeyeh's children are orphans, and one was referred to her as a social case as workers deemed it "unsafe" to leave the child with her family.
"The father of the twin boys was killed during the conflicts here. Authorities cannot find their mother so she is also presumed dead. My 12-year-old lost his parents in an accident."
Though mother Kurdeyeh does not have any children of her own, she says "the desire to be a mother" means she is able to care for these children as if they were her own.
"Whether the children are mine by blood or not, I can give them all the care they need."
And the hardest thing about caring for these innocent victims of war is "seeing the suffering and plight on their faces", she says.
"But the most rewarding thing is when I give them the love and care they need and they accept it."
At the heart of the organisation lie a number of extraordinary, selfless women. Dubbed 'SOS Mothers', these women live among these fragile communities and are stepping in to fill the empty space left in these children's lives.
With the help of sponsors, donors and community partners, SOS mothers provide a stable, secure and loving home in a family setting, with the support of SOS aunts, and brothers and sisters.
Living with up to 10 children at any one time, SOS families provide a ray of hope for those who had all but given up on their future.
"We are of the mind set that every child needs a loving family, so when this right is taken away from them through no fault of theirs, we step in and provide the nurture they so desperately need," Nassar said.
With 99 per cent of SOS mothers sourced locally, Nassar said the women's knowledge of the local culture, identity, religion and language ensures they provide the necessary support to these children 24/7, 365 days of the year "just like any other parent would".
Running more than 2,100 programmes that cater to 2.2 million children and adults in 134 countries, SOS villages also house more than 82,000 children and youth, worldwide.
The federation also works with struggling families and communities to help strengthen them and prevent child abandonment.
With a key focus on alternative childcare, family strengthening, education, healthcare, and emergency relief, Nassar said SOS Children's Villages gives back to those that have lost, or on the verge of losing everything.
"We are here to support all that need our help around the world. When we talk about helping families at risk of breaking apart, we step in to provide sufficient shelter, we put food on their table."
Working together with local authorities, SOS Children's Villages is first alerted of a child's or family's risk before moving in to take action.
Depending on the severity of the situation, it then works together with these authorities to find help for the victims, whether being housed at one of the local SOS villages or being referred to the relevant SOS programme in their local area.
"We then support these children until they are able to support themselves. There is no age limit on the children we take in or let go. Our focus is on long-term care," Nassar told Khaleej Times.
So, for children beset by poverty, conflict and natural disasters, it's time we hand back that innocence they once had. After all, a well-known proverb does state that children are beautiful because they possess something that we have all lost: "the quality of innocence".
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