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When a safe haven turns into nightmare… Girls of Darun Nusra allege continued abuse
Published Date: 10/01/2018 (Wednesday)

By Shaahidah Riza, Ruwan Laknath Jayakody and Kavindya Chris Thomas

A young girl, aged 12, stands outside the probation office in Hulftsdorp. Her tattered abaya flutters in the wind, her manner desolate. She is one of the victims among 18 who were allegedly abused at the Darun Nusra Orphanage, run by Dr. Mareena Reffai. This young girl was at the probation office to complain about the cruel treatment she had allegedly undergone at the hands of the recently appointed matron in the orphanage. "The probation officer had no sympathy for me. Instead, she yelled at me, indicating that she could not help me," she alleged.When the initial complaints were made to the probation officers, they had arrived at the orphanage and had a lengthy audience with the caretaker and the matron. According to the girls at the orphanage, following this visit, the attitude of the probation officers towards the girls was rather bias.

"The probation officers insisted that our personal accounts should be written in Sinhalese. However, nearly all 18 of us are Tamil literate. Therefore, we were compelled to narrate our stories to those who can write in Sinhala. We couldn't give our entire story as we were ashamed and shy to tell it to another. However, if we wrote it in Tamil, we could have been clearer," one of the girls told Ceylon Today.

This young girl had a story to tell. "There were 18 of us at the orphanage. We were taken to Uncle's office and abused. The orphanage had CCTV cameras installed in all quarters, including his office. Uncle had the CCTV in his office disconnected," she alleged.

No sympathetic ear

When the girls had reported to the matron, Zahira, about what was taking place, she had allegedly scolded the young girls and had refused to heed their complaints. Subsequently, when Dr. Reffai was informed of this, she too had turned a blind eye.

Speaking to Ceylon Today one of the girls claimed, "When we told Doctor Aunty (Dr. Reffai) she insisted that it would have been a mistake. Perhaps his hand might have accidentally touched us. However, there were 18 girls who had the same complaint." The young girl also alleged that 'the uncle's' friends and relatives regularly visited the orphanage and stayed over. As soon as the girls returned from school, they were expected to help with the preparation of meals.

"Doctor Aunty hardly ever visits the orphanage. She doesn't look into our needs," one of the girls said. She added that most of the girls were struggling with their education as they were uprooted from stable education and then transferred to Al Asafeer International School, which is run by Dr. Reffai's organization, Al muslimaath.

"Girls who were doing well in State schools in the Tamil medium were removed and put in lower grades of the international school. Some girls were removed from their Grade 5 Tamil medium class and put in Grade 2 of the international school," one of the victims claimed. When these girls turn 18 they will be in Grade 9, their education will be incomplete. The orphanage expects the girls to leave as soon as they complete 18 years, leaving them underequipped to face society.

"Doctor Aunty's daughter-in-law is the principal of the international school. When we told her that we cannot cope with this change, she assured us that she herself adjusted to a new environment at the age of 24," a girl said. A guardian of one of the girls added, "The principal is from an affluent environment, and these girls are from a lower social stratum. Her experience is different to ours."

Despite all these, the girls continue to live at the orphanage, and all of them complain that the incumbent matron, Jiffry miss, is "exacting revenge from those of us who complained of our plight to the authorities."

More allegations

One of the girls, who were more vocal in her complaint, alleged that she was administered psycho-active pills. "I was told by the matron that one of the pills was being administered as a nerve in my brain had gotten smaller," she alleged. However, her guardian was told that she was given the pill to ensure that she sleeps at night. The guardian alleged, "Due to the effect of the pills, the girl was suffering severe psychological side effects that caused her to self harm that ultimately resulted in her being admitted to the accident ward in the National Hospital. The doctors there had advised against her taking the pills." One of the girls told Ceylon Today, "We suffered a lot at the orphanage. We are sent to school even when we are sick, and we are not taken to the doctor. There was this girl who was very ill, but she was sent to school. She collapsed in school and then was rushed to the doctor. When we tell Doctor Aunty she keeps saying that she sent her children to school in rain or shine and insisted that we go to school whatever our circumstance is. There is an ongoing Court case. I hope we get redress."When Ceylon Today contacted Dr. Reffai, she declined to comment.

A temporary carer's
narrative

A clinical psychologist who wished to remain anonymous and his wife who had volunteered at the Darun Nusra orphanage, said he had taken the girl children at the orphanage, to and from school for a period of several days over the course of two weeks in the months of July and August, last year.

This had been subsequent to the arrest of the former matron at the orphanage and her husband, on 24 July 2017, (the latter a driver by profession, who has been accused of sexually abusing certain children at the orphanage premises and since been enlarged on bail).

The doctor and his wife had been involved in looking after the children when they were temporarily kept at the Kohuwala Police Station premises.

He said that during the period the Gangodawila Magistrate's Court had granted temporary custodianship of the children to his wife and a volunteer teacher at the orphanage on or around 26 July 2017.

He confirmed that children who had been in Grade Five at the State school, had since been placed at the International School, and put in Grade Two. He also noted that the school did not have the facilities of a proper school but in fact a house, which was in turn, visited by a few teachers whose standard of spoken English was poor.

"It is like a madrasa (a Muslim religious school teaching Islam). The teachers do not use proper English. The grammar used by the teachers is horrible. The education standard is really poor.

It is not really even Grade Two, because the education that they are receiving there is below even Grade One. There are no proper standards," he alleged.He also described the venture as an entity established for the purpose of making money as opposed to emphasis being placed on the aspect of educating the children.

"Al-Muslimath which operates the Darun Nusra orphanage, drums up a lot of publicity by selling the idea that they cater to orphans, and elsewhere to elders, and also the fact that they have a religious teaching component to the programme, to potential donors, in order to gain funding, of which they get a lot."

Lack of cooperation
from Police

The Department of Probation and Child Care Services (Western Province) said that action had since been taken via a departmental directive to remove the matron involved in the alleged assault of the girl, as assault is not an action the Department condones in any way, even for the purposes of disciplining children or warning them to refrain from certain behaviour and conduct.

A top Departmental official who wished to remain anonymous said that they were of the view that a child's education should not take a regressive path (of moving backward in one's education where for an example, a child studying in Grade Five in the Tamil medium need not and should not be placed in Grade Two in the English medium), and that therefore if a child facing such an issue requests a transfer from where they are presently studying at, such would be arranged for by the Department.

However, she added that there was a question regarding the facilities available and afforded to the child, in that the Department could not guarantee the facilities available in one orphanage in another, even within the same area, owing to the fact that the majority of the orphanages were maintained privately and therefore there were disparities in the sources of funding. For an example, one orphanage in Kaleliya may not have a continued water supply, while another in Dehiwala would have an ample water supply.

Furthermore, the official bemoaned what she claimed was a lack of cooperation on the part of the Police when it came to notifying the Department of Probation on certain matters, even though they are legally bound to do so.

Section 17(1) of the Children and Young Persons Ordinance holds that the Police, specifically the Officer-in-Charge of the Police Station to which the child in question has been taken to, should notify the relevant Probation officer/s of the area coming under the said Court's jurisdiction, in the event a child or young person is to be produced before a Court in relation to a child or young person in need of care and protection. Section 17(2) of the said Ordinance further states that upon receipt of such notification, it is the relevant Probation officer/s who should investigate the matter and assist the Court by making available to the Court information pertaining to the home surroundings, school record and health of the minor in question. In this particular instance, the Probation officer/s had provided the Police officers who visited the orphanage with their contact numbers, yet on the date of the Court hearing, the Probation officers had not been informed, she explained. "Even if the Probation officer living in the area is at fault or the people who deal with the officer in question do not have any faith or trust in the said officer, there is a procedure in informing such. Yet, the Department never gets the complaint. It is the Police who get the information. In this process, we are unfortunately being bypassed despite the legal provisions being in the place. For an example, if the alleged assault on the child, although the nature of her injuries are not known to us, if such had been informed or reported to us, in such an instance, we would definitely take action including legal measures, against the matron in charge.

Source: Ceylon Today

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