South Sudan: helping a child find his family

“How he arrived in Juba is still a mystery and Kamis really is the key to us helping him find his way back to his mother. He was referred to us by the Ministry of Social Development who had found him in Juba, but he wouldn’t tell anyone where he came from or how he got here. We shared pictures of him at the different displaced persons sites here in Juba, but nobody recognized him and no-one claimed him as their son, grandson or brother.”

“It has taken me months of talking gently with Kamis, gaining his trust and helping him to tell his story,” explains Cathy Groenendijk, Director of the UNICEF-supported national NGO, Confident Children Out of Conflict (CCC), located in Juba, South Sudan.

Finding safety and support
“Kamis was referred to CCC because we provide interim care and support for some of the most vulnerable children in Juba,” says Cathy. “Our focus has been on vulnerable girls, including adolescent girls living in the streets. Some of them had to sleep in the graveyard nearby because they had nowhere to go. But since December, we have also taken in about ten young children who have been separated from their families by the conflict.”

“We work creatively with them through our psycho-social care activities to get reunify them with their families as soon as possible. We are concerned that with time they will forget important details of their family life. In Kamis’ case, because he is so young and has been so quiet, it is almost five months that he has been separated, but we are confident now that he will be reunited with his mother soon.”

For a long time, Kamis was withdrawn, wouldn’t speak and had nightmares, crying out in the night. The CCC centre has female social workers who sleep near the children, comforting them when they awake with fear. They also take notes of what a child calls out in the night, which may provide clues.

The children spend their days in the peace, quiet and safety of the centre, where they play games with each other, take part in basic education activities, and may even get enrolled in the local school – all building back their strength, trust and confidence. They also participate in psycho-social activities with trained social workers who talk with them. And, in the case of a child separated from his family like Kamis, these activities help unlock clues as to who they are and where they come from. A child without an identity or a family is amongst the most vulnerable children of all in South Sudan.

Finding Kamis’ family
“I used dolls and stuffed animals to play with Kamis, which he really liked”, says Cathy. “With time, I would ask him to give them names of people he knew. Slowly, he started saying mother and father and the names of his siblings. But we had no idea where he came from. It was as if he had a tightly wrapped ball of string in his head, but with time and patience, it has finally begun unravelling and that makes us all so happy for him.”

“One day I took a big piece of paper and drew a picture of a little boy on it and named him Kamis. I asked him who else he would like me to draw. The first name he said was ‘Doki’, which is a female name. So I drew a girl and asked who it was. He told me to make her a lot bigger and finally told me that Doki was his mother. Our first strong clue.”

Carol, Director of the Confident Children Out of Conflict NGO in South Sudan, shows the drawing that is helping to piece together Kamis' story.
Cathy, Director of the Confident Children Out of Conflict NGO, shows the drawing that is helping to piece together Kamis’ story. ©UNICEF/2014/Kent Page

“I asked about his father and eventually he told me that his father was laying down, covered in blood. It was difficult for me, but I drew a picture of an injured man laying down. Again, with time, he helped fill in more details, telling me that his father wore combat clothes so I drew those in as well. One day he said to me “Give my father his gun!”, so I added that to the drawing. One day he told me that he had been standing beside his father and said to him, “You have to get up”, but that his father never did.”

During their conversations over a period of months, more people and names were added to the drawing, including a baby named ‘Gido’, a boy named ‘Lual’, a girl named ‘Nyobal’, and a tall man named ‘Nomoro’; Cathy had to redo her first stick drawing of ‘Nomoro’ because Kamis said ‘His legs are not long enough!’ She drew a grass hut for a home and he told her that his home has a tin roof on it, and then said there was a big fence around the home, a mango tree, a lime tree and that he had a monkey as well. “We have a monkey here at CCC and I remember that one thing Kamis loved from the start was to visit the monkey.” The stick drawing picture was becoming clearer and more detailed, but there was still no clue as to where Kamis came from.

“Then one day, I told Abraham Achiek, a UNICEF child protection national officer who works with us, that Kamis had been saying the word ‘panpandier’ that morning, which I didn’t understand. Abraham said he thought that Kamis might have just revealed the missing piece of the puzzle,” says Cathy. Panpandier is the name of a village near the military barracks in Bor, Jonglei State, about 205 kilometres driving distance from Juba.

With the use of a laptop and Google, Abraham sat down with Kamis and started showing him photos of Bor, including the types of birds, trees and different kinds of houses there, as well as images of military barracks. “Kamis got very excited and pointed out everything he recognized. It was our big breakthrough!”

Working together, the Ministry of Social Development, CCC and UNICEF are now preparing the next step which is to identify Kamis’ mother. A good place to start will be Panpandier village, but also amongst all the displaced families at the Protection of Civilians sites around Bor.

“We will be looking for a mother who has been separated from her five-year old boy and whose husband was killed in December. It won’t be easy, but we have to get them back together again as soon as possible,” says Cathy. “We all get very energized and happy when we believe we are close to reunifying a separated child with their family. It is the best part of our work and I am sure that soon Kamis will be back with his mother and siblings.”

UPDATE: In July 2014 we received the wonderful news from South Sudan that Kamis had been reunited with his mother.

Kent Page is UNICEF’s Strategic Communications Advisor for Emergencies

Note: The Ministry of Social Development, UNICEF and CCC work within a comprehensive family reunification process to ensure above all else that a separated child is reunited with their correct family. This can include the family being able to describe in detail the child, including name, age, nicknames, identifying marks, be able to produce photos, birth registration, describe the circumstances of the child’s separation, etc. For a child of five years of age, the child must also be able to identify the family members from photos and in person. When necessary, DNA testing is also used, especially in the cases of very young children. UNICEF provides funding and technical support to CCC, along with recreation and education materials as part of its child protection activities in South Sudan. To protect the child, the names ‘Kamis’ and ‘Doki’ are pseudonyms.


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  1. Wonderful story!
    Just noticed a little typo in the caption on the second photo — it says the centre director’s name is Carol, but the story says it’s Cathy.
    Congratulations on the great child protection and story-telling work!

  2. Thank you for the feedback – and for catching that. We’ve corrected it!