A nameless little girl with a nameless story opened the door on which I knocked last Friday. She stood at the door and eyed me, a 5-foot-10 foreigner, up and down. Looking me in the eye shortly after, she smiled with a murmured, "Welcome."
She was one of Istanbul's abandoned children, and the home she let me into was part of a large-scale initiative by the Directorate General of Social Services and Child Protection. The project called Home for Children was launched in 2000 by the Society for the Protection of Children in collaboration with nongovernmental organizations. The Home for Children aims to set up homes for orphans and abandoned children who are devoid of family, home and belongings. Out of all 12,680 children under the aegis of the Society for the Protection of Children, this nameless little girl and another 1,479 children have been brought up at some of these special homes.
Mutlu Yuva Mutlu Yaşam Derneği (The Institution of Happy Home and Happy Life), founded in 2010 under the leadership of Professor Nevzat Tarhan, is one of the nongovernmental organizations specializing in child rearing and protection. Having been established with just three houses, the institution now has 41 in Istanbul. Nearly 300 children live in these houses and some pilot programs are being conducted in other cities such as Ankara, Yozgat, Bursa and Erzurum.
Before stopping by the little girl's home I visited The Institution of Happy Home and Happy Life, which functions as a head office for the administration of all the homes, and met Yasemin Dönmez, the deputy head of the organization's council. As a psychologist who maintains a close interest in the Home for Children project, she explained the mission of the institution in detail: "We work hard with patience and conviction. We, in a way, revivify these children by making them build their social skills and personal capabilities. At the same time, we make a huge effort to minimalize all the side effects of their miserable life stories."
What grabbed my attention when I was shown around was the systematic way the head office is administrated. There are special rooms for psychologists, guidance counselors and managers, therapy rooms, examination rooms for routine health checkups and a lot of toys scattered around that are used in monthly progress reports since children are analyzed there once a week using game and play therapy. The way the head office is decorated is more to the point, however. The office walls are covered with children's portraits – a boy with a muddy face, a girl whose eyes shine with joy and two boys striking a heroic pose. The vivid tint of the colors in each therapy room creates a warm atmosphere and there are miniature toys, teddy bears and even sandboxes are available for them to play with. Every corner of the office has something to tell about the physical, ethical, mental and psychological progress of these abandoned or orphaned children. For instance, if a child has the habit of biting their nails, guidance counselors note it down and inform psychologists about it to help them find a way of solving it through therapy. Children between the ages of 2 and 16 are chosen by the Society for the Protection of Children to be sent to the homes, each of which can house a maximum of five children. While choosing the five, it is of great importance to put siblings together. For instance, the institute has one house in which five siblings live together. In another case, a girl told one of her counselors that she has a missing brother with the same hair color as her. At her request, the institution found her brother and let them live together in the same house, which helps them bond and overcome their problems. Once the children are placed in homes, a three-month-long acclimatization period takes place in order to get them used to the houses and neighborhoods. Every home has three child guardians who take care of the children 24/7. Every house is also appointed a caseworker so that both the Institution of Happy Home and Happy Life and the Directorate General of Social Services and Child Protection can meticulously monitor their progress. Following the adaptation period, a psychologist begins visiting the home and has conversations with the children on a regular basis. The professional psychologists analyze children's manners and help them move past the difficulties they have experienced. As a metaphorical practice, children who are deemed reliable are given the keys of their new homes after they reach puberty. They hold their new life in their hands, they control and even manipulate it, unlike the previous ones they try to leave behind.
The reason why childcare is taken so seriously in this project is because these are either orphans or abandoned children owing to accidents, insufficient care or disagreements by their parents, which means they are in need of extra attention. Moreover, philanthropists are very important for the project. They cover the costs, be it renting a house or buying household goods. But before letting them do so, the institution defines an ideal house in Istanbul. As Dönmez emphasized: "A children's home should be in a comfortable and safe neighborhood so that the children can adapt to the environment quickly and go out and play with other children without trepidation."
As for philanthropists, they can be foster parents for the children if they wish. On the condition that foster parents match certain criteria regarding socio-economic status, family structure and moral values, they pass to next step of the candidacy phase. Then foster parenting nominees undergo an orientation program for six months; only after that can they meet the child they will be fostering. They can host the child at their home once a week, go outside together with him or her for activities or even attend parent meetings at school. Back to the little girl who welcomed me on the door. She seems to have forgotten the life she lived before. Being a child who witnessed an incestuous relationship, she tries to learn how to be a child again. She lives now with four other little girls in Başakşehir. Right after introducing me, she held my hand and took me to her room. With a tone that expressed she was proud of how beautiful her toys were, she showed me all of the items and playthings she has. Her bed, bag, comb, slippers and storybooks are all pink and glittery. They are all like an epitome of the project itself – remarkable and promising. The little girl set off after a while with one of the guardians to get her student report card since it is the end of the first semester. She was so excited to get what she longs for – appreciation in return for her success.
Dönmez underscored another feature of the institution contains – voluntary mentorship in which university students apply to become mentors to the children. They are tested and trained before they meet the children as well, and they help the children with their homework for at least two days in a week. Children's attendance to socio-cultural activities matter a lot for their psychological progress, which is why these mentors are chosen among those students who are active and lively. The institution has two life centers, a project called Okulum Umudum (My School, My Hope) and another called Yeni Nesil Yeni Ufuklar (New Generation, New Horizons), where children observe the elderly and imagine a new future they can embrace with open arms and disregarding their past. The life centers offer various activities such as music, physical training, karate and folk dances.
Routinely getting the children together is one of the ideal methods of socializing them. Therefore, the institute arranges a good number of activities such as kite running, seasonal festivals, music competitions and sporting events either once a month or once every two months. Above all, as a result of the unending efforts, children tend to be more successful and idealistic. With the guidance of psychiatrists, they overcome many problems such as mental deficiency, attention deficit disorder and slow learning. And the success story of every single child prompts the institute to reach out to more and more children who seem to be nonstarters, believing that seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is not so hard.