FOUR YEARS AGO, I was honored to participate in a volunteer program called, ‘With Love We Live’, which was created by Dr. Haifa Ezzi, who is the head of the Psycho-social Counseling Center for Family and Marital Relationships in Jeddah. Volunteers would meet orphans regularly in order to get to know them through planned educational and entertainments programs. The goal was to strengthen the bond between orphans and members of the society, to increase social cohesion by utilizing the volunteers’ personal skills.
Unfortunately, love was not enough for the program to live long. Orphans’ homes policies did not fully endorse the message of the program. There has been an underlying assumption at orphanages that stimulating orphans intellectually through conversations or books could corrupt them.
One orphanage refused to allow us access altogether unless our visits were purely entertaining and preferably for young kids only. In another home, interactions with older girls were very restricted. This mentality, which is very similar to how many Saudi parents raise their own kids as well, cripple children intellectually and confuse them even more when the restrictions are no longer present. It is worse with orphans because their interaction with the rest of the society is already limited to few social settings, which makes them less equipped to live in the wider society when they leave their orphanage.
One of the things we observed during our visits was that the children were clean, healthy, fed well and dressed nicely. As they informed us at the orphanage, people were very generous with financial donations in addition to the gifts and food brought by different groups who visited the home frequently. Moreover, the government’s provide orphans with financial support, which includes food, health care, education and a generous sum of SR 20,000 when an orphan gets married.
The downside of this generosity though is that during our visits, orphans were constantly asking for toys and food. Donating money and associate gifts and food with visits are amazing acts of kindness, which Saudi people are doing frequently and abundantly.
However, emphasizing them while ignoring real human interaction, which occurs over longer periods of time through addressing emotional and intellectual needs, does not contribute to raising active members of the society.
A well-known saying by the Prophet (PBUH) is, “I and the custodian of an orphan are like this (together) in Paradise”, and he joined his forefinger and middle finger together” (Al-Bukhari). Accordingly, one the main reasons behind most of these generous acts is the desire to get merits (hasanat) and get closer to God, even though the application of custodianship is mostly limited to financial sponsorship. However, God rewards us for our good deeds toward other people mostly to motivate us to be kind to one another in order to create cohesive communities and build our societies.
When we forget this important aspect of our religious duties and use orphans as tickets to heaven without considering the impact of our actions on their lives, we lose our empathy and lose sight of the real reason behind them. According to the head of one of the orphanages, patting orphans’ heads, which is a compassionate action that the Prophet encouraged us to do, turned into one of the most hated actions for teenage girls at the home because they considered it demeaning knowing that people ‘used’ them as a way to get (hasanat) and as a sign of pity rather than a sign of love and care.
The Prophet himself grew up in foster care as he was taken care of by different members of his family. Then, the Prophet (PBUH) himself raised an orphan as many others of his friends did, when donating money and leaving kids to grow up without a family was unheard of. Nowadays, the Ministry of Social Affairs has a long list of programs and incentives for people helping orphans on their website, which sadly not a lot of people know about.
With the kindness of all the people living in Saudi Arabia and cooperation from orphanages, true happiness can be brought to orphan’s lives. One would wonder how orphans who became great poets, philosophers and politicians, such as Al-Mutanabbi, Aristotle and Eleanor Roosevelt, would have turned had they been alienated and ignored by their societies?
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