Evening ushers in an orange-streaked sunset as we pack ten adults and one child into a small van. After an hour weaving in and out of the honking traffic, we tumble out in front of an ordinary but rundown apartment. Yet what we find inside is far from ordinary.
Our knock at the door is answered by a small child with a big smile. With the sweet innocence of a Down Syndrome child, she pulls us through the doorway to meet her friends and show us their home.
We are at an “unofficial orphanage,” home to eight special-needs children and their three care-givers. The children live here instead of in a state-run institution.
The tour of the two-bedroom apartment doesn’t last long — a couple bunk-beds are pushed together for the kids to share in one room, and some tables and chairs are in the main living space. A grey kitten lazes in the corner. It is cozy, home-like.
Although the caretakers are harassed by local officials for their faith and for opening their home to these “undesirables” (and children have even been removed from the home to live in an institution) it is clear how much the women love and care for these children.
After the tour, we pull out construction paper, glitter, play dough, and crayons. The universal language of fun!
Coco, who is blind, holds my hand that holds a crayon. Together we color a picture of a mama bird and her nest full of chicks. I’m glad for these moments with her, glad I’m able to give her some one-on-one attention. It doesn’t feel like much to me, but I know it matters.
Gradually the other children finish their schoolwork and peek around corners with well-scrubbed faces alive with curiosity. We had brought fun activities – modeling clay, stickers, buttons and feathers for craft projects. Soon there are sequins and smiles scattered all across the floor, but the real attraction is that we want to spend time with them. Like children everywhere they enjoy attention.
While we play and create masterpieces with the children, I think about the caretakers. Gentleness and love emanate from them even as they watch us with the children. These women gave their independence, their home and everything in it, and even made themselves government targets for the sake of these kids.
As we gather round to pray and sing at the end of the evening, I am humbled to hear their heart-felt prayers. It makes me sad to think that none of the children can be adopted into a family of their own. But as I look around the circle I see peaceful security on their sweet faces. This is their place. It is safe. It is cozy. It is home.