Seeing Sena Dedic at home with her mother, Esma, it’s very hard to believe they haven’t always been together. There’s so much love and affection between the two of them. The small house they share on the outskirts of a city in the North of Bosnia and Herzegovina is full of warmth, both physical and emotional.
But Sena spent the first four years of her life in the city’s orphanage – a huge, loveless institution where she was just one child among many. Even as a tiny baby, she had no one to care for her above all the others, to cuddle her, to comfort her or to play with her.
When Sena was born, Esma was alone and desperate. Her life had always been tough. Her father was killed in the Bosnian war and the rest of her family fled the country to escape the fighting. Esma was a refugee in her own country, a young woman with no one to support or guide her. She became pregnant at the very start of a new relationship and was frightened to tell Sena’s father. She thought he would not want her to keep the baby so she broke up with him and continued with her pregnancy alone. Fifteen days after giving birth, with nowhere to live and no income, Esma felt she had no choice but to take Sena to the orphanage and leave her there.
Just like Sena, most children who grow up in orphanages are not orphans at all. They have families who would and could care for them if they had the means to do so. That’s why, whenever possible, our partners in Bosnia and Herzegovina try to reintegrate children from institutions with their birth families and give them the support they need to stay together.
We first met Sena when we began work to close the orphanage where she lived. She was four years old by then, a withdrawn little girl who was still wearing nappies because no one had taken the time or trouble to teach her to use the toilet by herself.
Working with our partners in the local child protection department, we made contact with Esma to see if it might be possible to reunite her with her daughter. By then Esma’s situation had improved a great deal. She was in a steady relationship with a caring, hard-working man called Anto. They were living together in the small house he owned and Esma had occasional work as a cleaner.
Esma wanted very much to bring Sena home and Anto was happy to support her decision. The reintegration process took several months. We helped Sena, Esma and Anto to establish secure relationships with each other. We also enrolled Sena in a local nursery so that Esma could continue to work to provide for her daughter. Once Sena left the orphanage to join Esma and Anto, we continued to monitor the family’s progress to make sure that Sena was happy and that Esma and Anto were coping in their new role as parents.
It was only once Sena was safely home that Esma felt able to reveal that Anto was in fact Sena’s biological father. “When Esma told me that I am Sena’s father I felt hurt because she kept that from me for a long time”, Anto says “but at the same time it was the happiest moment of my life”. When Sena calls Anto “Babo” (daddy), it’s obvious to everyone how proud he is.
Anisija Radenkovic, Hope and Homes for Children Country Director in Bosnia and Herzegovina, remembers the first time she met Sena.
“She was very quiet and rarely smiled but since she has returned to her family, she has blossomed. To me, Sena is proof that what children need to be happy is not fortune, but love” says Anisija.
Sena is seven now and has just started school. She likes to play with her puppy and help her mother around the house and in the garden. She’s a happy, much-loved little girl with a real home and a family of her own.