Time Out explores the world where women become mothers to other people's children in SOS villages
‘It was like an emotional explosion,’ says Abeer Hussen Shehadeh Al Dasouki. ‘From my first day as an SOS mother, I had very strong feelings. I found my maternal instinct. I felt I was a real mother.’ Al Dasouki has been an SOS mother for 14 years now, and lives in the SOS children’s village in Bethlehem with her six adopted children. SOS villages are purpose-built communities in which each house provides a home for orphaned and vulnerable children under the care of a ‘mother’, a woman who, like Al Dasouki, dedicates her life to looking after them.
Her village started up in 1968, and is one of 473 in 132 countries and territories worldwide, spanning every continent. As such, SOS Children’s Villages is an undeniably remarkable project. But, despite being the largest non-profit organisation of its kind, chances are, you’ve never heard of it. This is exactly what a new office in Dubai intends to address.
Billed as a ‘liaison office’, it is focused on generating interest around – and awareness of – the organisation’s activities, rather than building a village here. Indeed, there are already SOS communities in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories. But because SOS Children’s Villages spends its entire budget on helping children, this leaves little room for advertising and publicising its projects.
Having worked quietly and well for more than half a century – the organisation celebrates its 60th anniversary this year – now seems the right time to make some noise about its achievements. And considering there are hopes to build 66 more villages in our region by 2016, it is important the organisation makes itself heard in the Middle East.
Those who apply to be an SOS mother are interviewed from a shortlist before entering an intensive training programme. This entails studying theory at a nearby educational institution – Al Dasouki learned about child psychology, child development and child protection at Bethlehem University – and around 21 months of on-the-job practical training.
The latter phase involves being an SOS aunt, helping out at the homes in a village. Al Dasouki says this allowed her to ‘live all the experiences and emotions, what it means to be a mother’.
Although SOS mothers are paid to do what they do – it is a full-time commitment, with no option to hold down even part-time employment – the organisation stresses that being an SOS mother should not be considered a job. Rafif Ben Messalem, the Middle East’s fund development and communications co-ordinator, tells Time Out: ‘You have to be able to love every single child who comes to your home and give them the attention they need. The women really have to want to do it.’
All villages respect local cultures and religions, and respond to local problems. As such, land for building villages is donated, usually by the government, and villages receive support from neighbouring communities. These nearby communities are encouraged to interact with villages through an ‘open door’ policy. The size of a family, too, depends on local norms, but most mothers care for eight to nine children.
Once a child reaches adolescence, they move to an SOS Youth Facility, a shared or supervised flat that prepares them for independence and self-sufficiency. But these teens keep contact with their mothers, as the organisation’s entire philosophy is to create a sustainable family network for those in need. (The world’s first SOS mother, Maria Weber from Austria, cared for 38 children between 1951 and 1977. Now retired, she receives regular visits from her brood).
There are benefits for the mothers as well as the children, as Al Dasouki points out. ‘Being an SOS mother lets me feel independent,’ she explains. ‘I have full responsibility for the house, and I make decisions about the children and myself. I feel more empowered, more content, more satisfied with what I am doing.’ Being an SOS mother gives Al Dasouki a real sense of purpose.
For Al Dasouki, watching her children leave is the hardest part. ‘There is still contact, but it is different, there are feelings of loss,’ she admits. Growing more emotional, she can’t hold back the tears as she says simply: ‘I miss my children. I’m a mother.’
Clearly, SOS Children’s Villages changes lives. And in its mission to provide family-based care, giving children not only mothers, but brothers and sisters, it changes those lives for the better. Muhammed Fares Muhammed Mussabeh, now 16 years old and living in a boys’ youth facility, moved into the Bethlehem village in 2003.
He says that sustaining a long-term relationship with his mother makes him feel secure, as does his bond with his siblings. ‘I feel a strong link with my brothers, we share similar experiences, and we understand each other,’ he says. ‘The atmosphere is my favourite thing. It’s not an institution; it’s my house. It’s my future.’ Find out more about SOS Children’s Villages at www.sos-childrensvillages.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org