News from Maison de la Gare

“For the love of God, why must they?”

Sonia LeRoy shares the horror, and the hope, of a recent “night round"

“Since we discovered several years ago Issa Kouyaté’s personal night time habit of searching the dark alleys, transportation yards and dangerous, dark corners of Saint Louis for runaway talibés after midnight, "night rounds" have become part of Maison de la Gare's regular activities. Teams now head out from the Maison de la Gare center at least twice a week in search of young boys who have run away from their daaras, typically due to abuse or fear of reprisal for failing to meet a begging quota.

The boys are at terrible risk when on the run. They try to strike a delicate balance between not being found, and not being too alone and thus subject to the whims of sexual predators or others ready to take advantage of them. Their vulnerable lives become even more outrageously exposed to the chance of meeting evil when they are living on the streets at night. During the days, the worst the talibés need to deal with on the streets is usually injury, hunger, exhaustion and bullying. Imagine how bad it must be to know what awaits at night, and to run anyway.

Each time we have joined Issa or another team for a night round, we begin with barely suppressed excitement co-mingled with anxiety. And, fear. Not our own, but a sense of what the boys we are searching for must be feeling. Excitement that we will find them and help them. Anxiety that we might find them - we always hope there will be none on the streets tonight. But, sadly, there are always many.

The very first time my dad, my daughter Rowan and I went out on a night round, what we saw branded us forever. We had been intending to go out the night before, but were waiting for a news crew that wanted to follow Issa with cameras. So we put it off. The second night the news crew wanted us to postpone again but we decided to go. We found four boys, huddled together in the cold tucked into their t-shirts. One little one was more difficult to approach, more reluctant to trust us. Rowan eventually won a tiny smile as she gently zipped her Lululemon jacket around him. We learned later that he had been sexually assaulted the night before while on the street. THE NIGHT BEFORE! This knowledge is now part of me, will always be.

Last Tuesday night Idy and Bathe, leaders of the Maison de la Gare night round team, met Rowan and me at midnight at Maison de la Gare’s center. We took taxis out to the Gare routière (the Saint Louis bus station) at the edge of town. This is a large area full of hundreds of busses, trucks and cars all ready to take off first thing in the morning to different parts of Senegal, The Gambia and beyond. The runaways often hide out here with the idea that they could steal away on a ride home. How often do kids inadvertently end up in another, unknown country? I cannot bear to imagine. And, sometimes, as the kids sleep under vehicles to stay out of reach of potential predators, they are run over as the wheels start to move earlier than expected, before the sun rises.

We found five boys. After meeting three more members of the team we split into two groups, Rowan in one with Idy and me in the other with Bathe. We prowled through the narrow alleys and shone our flashlights under cars, into parked busses, behind crevices. My light soon shone upon a grown man, huddled under a blanket, hidden behind a half-wall. As my light moved along, it soon shone upon a tiny bundle, opposite to the grown man. Ibrahima! Bathe estimated his age at ten. How could this little waif have been older than six? Bathe gently woke him and spoke with him in Wolof. The boy was convinced to follow us. But I stayed a step behind, with a hand hovering and ready to leap just in case he chose to run.

We soon found three more boys, piled together under canvas rags. As they were gently woken from sleep, reality began to hit me hard as it does every time I do this. Nothing to do but just DO. After all, what is what I feel compared to what they lived?

We met up with Rowan's group and paused to note the names and daaras of the boys, and to learn something of their stories. The night here is cold at this time of year. Little Ibrahima was shivering, perhaps from the cold, perhaps from fear. Rowan removed her favorite sweater (deja-vu) and put it on Ibrahima. As he huddled into the new-found warmth, Rowan peeled a few oranges and handed them out. Then, we hopped into taxis to return to the emergency shelter at Maison de la Gare. As we were leaving the Gare routière, another little talibé came up to the car. He had been watching. We must have looked like help and not hurt. He hopped in. Then he fell right asleep.

When we arrived back at the center, the boys were registered with the social worker who is always on duty. Rowan and I helped find the bedding and set them up in the shelter’s bunk beds, likely the first beds they had ever known.

Rowan and I returned in the morning and settled in with the little runaways. They seemed to trust us, and were soon out of their shells, playing chase and tickle games, reading and dancing to music. One by one, the social worker sat with them to try to figure out where they were from, which daara, which village, country? Had they been abused? Did they want to go home? Did they have a home to return to?

Only one boy, Amadou, would be returned to his distant home. This is planned for later next week, after his marabout can be located and has been called to account. The others will be returned to their daaras later today. A difficult thing. But, the Palais de Justice has spoken, and the boys did not choose home - maybe none exists any longer for them? But, Maison de la Gare now knows them, and they now know Maison de la Gare. Maison de la Gare will watch their daaras. Their marabouts know they will be watching. This helps.

I saved writing about our night round until we were safely on our way home, flying back toward my usual reality. Each one of us seems to know just what we can take. These talibé boys seem to be able to take more than most of us. But, for the love of God, why must they?”

We are grateful to the European Union whose grant has made possible the regular night rounds seeking boys sleeping on the streets, and to all of our precious supporters who make possible all of our work for these children.