Surviving a Broken Childhood: Hawi’s story

Monday 4 February 2019

Retrak, a non-governmental organization which is currently an implementing partner for Save the Children’s Children on the Move project, works to enable street children to move from a life of vulnerability, exclusion and poverty to an improved life within a positive family or community. Retrak’s Deborah Light House, located in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Abeba, is currently home to 248 girls from Oromia, Amhara, Tigray and SNNP regions of Ethiopia and it provides food, clothing and counseling services. It also trains the girls on life and communication skills and provides informal education. Girls stay at the shelter for an average of two months, but as it all depends on individual cases, girls like Hawi may stay longer. 

Hawi Tolosa, a 17-year-old bright girl with talents in writing and poetry, used to live with her parents in Bale Robe town in Ethiopia’s Oromia region. Hawi has older brother and four sisters. When she was 10 years old, her violent father stabbed her mother to death while sleeping with Hawi and her siblings. This incident has traumatized Hawi for a long time. 

Soon after her mother died, she was separated from her older brother and sister. Hawi and her three young siblings were adapted by her aunt (mother’s sister) and started to live in Arsi Robe town. Her aunt was harsh on Hawi and her siblings, regarding them as a criminal’s children. Hawi could not handle the blemish comments and mistreatment by her aunt. So she ran away leaving her siblings with the abusive aunt of theirs. Then she lived with a woman and her family as a housemaid in Adama, a bigger town in Oromia where she attended evening school. Hawi used to work a lot and the woman was as abusive as her aunt, if not more. When she could not take all that anymore, she once again left and got to work as a housemaid for another lady who owned a hub. Despite her busy domestic work, she continued her school which she loves so much. She focused on the positives of life and carried on. One unfortunate day, however, she was she was raped by a customer and that has marked the darkest experience of her life. Hawi left the house and started to live on the streets. Her hopelessness was so profound that she tried to take her own life by drinking a poisonous mix. Her suicide attempt didn’t materialize, but she had to be hospitalized for ten days. 

After she recovered and left the hospital, she came to Addis Abeba to start life anew. As she was wondering the streets, feeling uncertain where to go in this big city, a policeman noticed her confusion and asked her who she came to Addis Abeba with. When he understood she was alone, he took her to the child protection department in his police station where they keep unaccompanied children temporarily until they get appropriate care often provided by local NGOs. Hawi stayed at the police station for few days and then was taken to the Organization for Prevention, Rehabilitation and Integration of Female Street Children /OPRIFS/, a local NGO working towards welfare of female street children. Finally, Hawi was referred to Retrak’s Deborah Light House, a temporary shelter for girls from 7 to 17 years old who suffered from sexual and physical abuses. 

Hawi’s story in her own words: 

“When I look back into my life these days, I realize that I passed through tough times at young age. Someday, I will write a book about it so people know and understand a young girl like me can go through and survive difficult times. 

I was born in a small village around Arsi Robe town (Arsi zone of Oromia region). I am the third born for my parents and have a brother and four sisters. 

I can’t say I had a pleasant childhood. My father was an abusive husband and life for my mother was full of challenges. My older brother and sister used to support my mother a lot by doing part time work after school. I was a little girl when my father sold our farmland and since then he didn’t have a stable work and income. Finally, my parents decided to sell our house and we moved to Bale Robe town.  

Hawi keeps a diary and writes about her hopes and tribulation which she plans to publish as a book in the future.

Despite the challenges, I never stopped going to school. I joined a primary school soon after we moved to Bale Robe, and in the third grade, I was one of the top ranking students. All my teachers encouraged me. My parents started to receive a support from an NGO and got a dairy cow to keep me and my siblings in school.  

Things with my parents were initially smooth after we moved to Bale Robe town. Then they started fighting and our home became depressing all over again. 

Tuesday, 31st of July 2012, seemed an ordinary day. I was ten years old. I did my daily routine like going to school and helping my mother with small household chores. My father was acting very strange that night and we all went to bed unhappy with his behavior. I and my younger siblings slept with our mom in the mattress on the floor. In the middle of the night, I just felt wet and woke up to find out that my mother’s blood was all over the mattress. It turned out that he stabbed her to death that very night. I was very scared and I could not sleep or stay at home. Without making any noise, I ran away in the dark and went to our closest neighbors. Our neighbors were shocked when I told them the news. I stayed there until the morning. 

In the morning, police came and arrested my father. Since my mother passed away, I have never seen my older brother and sister. My father was sentenced to life. Myself and my younger siblings started living with my aunt (my mother’s sister) in Arsi Robe.   

I could not talk for three months. Life in my aunt’s house was hard. She kept telling and reminding us that we are daughters of a criminal man. My sisters did not understand it well because all of them were very young. But I could not tolerate it. I ran away from her house and travelled to Bale Robe town. Since I left my aunt’s house, I have never seen my siblings again.  

I did not take anything with me except my school report cards. All I wanted to do was continue my school. It is the only place I feel happy and hopeful. 

In Bale Robe town, a woman approached and asked me why I looked sad. I told her my story and she offered me to travel with her to Adama town. She promised to take care of me and send me to school. I trusted her and went to Adama with her. At her home in Adama, she was in control of my every movement.  She sent me to evening classes, and during the day I was in charge of doing nearly all household chores. I lived with her for more than two years, but finally, I got exhausted and decided to leave after finishing my exams and receiving my report card that year. 

Wondering in the streets of Adama, I found a broker and he took me to a woman who owned a pub and someone to assist her. She said she needed a night shift waiter, but I asked her if I could live with her at her house and work as a housemaid instead. The woman agreed.  She was a nice person. She allowed me to continue my school in the evening instead, and I served her as a housemaid during the day. 

On New Year’s eve (September 10, 2017), a regular customer at the pub raped me. I was in a lot of pain and unconscious throughout the night. In the New Year’s morning, I left the house and did not get back since. I did not want to live any more. I bought a toxic chemical from a shop and attempted to take my own life. 

Next thing, I found myself in a hospital bed. The nurse told me I was unconscious for three days. She also told me that they cleaned up the toxic from my blood. I told her why I drunk the poison. She was very caring and understanding. She brought me meals from her house. I stayed at the hospital for ten days. When I fully recovered, then the nurse asked me if I had a relative or a family to stay with in the town. I lied to her and said I have relatives in Adama town. I did not want to be a burden for her. She gave me some money and clothes. 

Then, I traveled to Addis Abeba on a bus. I heard a lot of good things about the city. When I arrived there, I was confused and scared. While wondering in the streets near the bus station, not knowing what to do and where to go, a policeman approached and asked me whom I came to the city with and why. I told him the truth. He took me to the police station. At the police station they keep children who are lost or have nowhere to go until they an NGO to take care of them. I only stayed for few days there and then stayed a few days at OPRIFS (local NGO) before I came to Deborah Light House. 

Deborah is a wonderful home for me. I found new mothers, fathers and sisters. It has been five months since I arrived here. I talk about my past life with Firtuna who I call mom. We also talk about my future plan and my dreams in life. We play games with other girls in the compound. Each one of us makes presentations on different topics. 

We learn English, Amharic, Natural Science and other subjects here although I dropped out of school after I finished the sixth grade. Here I’m revising grade six grade lessons and studying grade seven subjects. 

I write my dairy almost every day. I have written my stories and I will put them all into a book in the future. I also like writing poems. I wrote poems about my mother, about God and life in general. I read some of my poems to my friends in Deborah Light House where I turned into a different person. I feel hopeful about the future. I want to become a writer, poet and social worker who cares for children.”                                                  

IKEA-GCC, I play, I learn and I am safe, which is also known as ‘Children on the Move’ project strives to prevent unsafe migration and advance the right for children on the move to protection, education and development. The project is being implemented by Save the Children in partnership with Retrak and another local NGO – Mission for Community Development Program (MCDP).

Overall, the project will directly reach 26,500 children and 12,960 adults. In addition, an estimated 3.5 million people in the intervention areas will be reached through different awareness raising activities through media and other mass and community-organized campaigns.