A Belgian princess opens a home for Benin's street kids

Published: 15 May 2002 0:00 CET

Fernand Azonnanon in Cotonou, Benin

It was all dancing and jubilation as the motorcade of Princess Astrid of Belgium arrived in Segbeya district of Cotonou. Dressed in Red Cross T-shirts, waving the flags of Benin and Belgium, children and adults ignored the scorching sun to welcome their visitor. She had come from far away to inaugurate the Red Cross Home for Street Children, the fruits of a project conceived by the Benin Red Cross and financed by the Belgian Red Cross and the Belgian government.

With a 100-bed dormitory, a dining hall, a library and administrative blocks, street children of Segbeya district and other poor areas of Cotonou now have a place to call home. Segbeya is a word in Fon (one of the main languages in Benin) which means God despises poverty. Children in the new Red Cross home will receive counselling, food and shelter and all efforts will be made to reunify them with their families. Those who can no longer be reunited with their families will receive vocational training to ensure self-sufficiency in their adulthood.

In his welcome address, Abdou Tairou, president of the Benin Red Cross thanked the Belgian King Albert and his government for financing the project as well as Princess Astrid for taking time out from her busy schedule to inaugurate the Red Cross Home for Street Children.

Explaining the rationale behind the project, Abdou Tairou added, "the phenomenon of abandoned children has been on the increase in Cotonou and other parts of the country. These neglected children may grow up to constitute a menace to society. If we don't act now, the population will pay for it in the future. As a humanitarian agency we are compelled to do something to address this matter."

Declaring the Red Cross Home for Street Children officially open, Princess Astrid commended the efforts of the Benin Red Cross and promised to assist whenever the need arose. She also offered words of comfort and hope to the beneficiaries of the home. "Being a mother of four children of your age group, I know the importance family plays in bringing up a child. Although you are not living with your biological family, you can trust the Red Cross to be your family because under their guidance, I'm certain they will help you succeed as adults."

The Belgian secretary of state for cooperation and development, Eddy Bootmans, expressed his government's delight in being associated with such a laudable project. He also thanked the Benin Red Cross volunteers for their contribution in bringing this project to fruition. "The Benin Red Cross volunteers played a vital role in the construction of this home by offering their time and expertise," he said. "I wonder if the founder of the Red Cross, Henri Dunant, had imagined the impact his initiative would have more than a century after its creation. The Belgian government is committed to helping you with your project whenever called upon," he concluded.

The Benin Red Cross intends to extend this good work to other parts of the country. According to Abdou Tairou, "each of the 12 departments that make up the country will have a Red Cross home and counselling centre for children in difficult situations. We are going to work with other partners like UNICEF, the Association of Female Traditional Rulers in Benin, NGOs involved in human rights and government branches interested in the activities of the Red Cross."

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