Sun, 05 Sep 1999

SOS Children's Village a lifeline in Bandung

By Oliver Crowder

BANDUNG (JP): Once a month for a little over a year, Anders' parents in Sweden have sent 150 kroner (about US$18) to a young girl living near Bandung, West Java. Her name is Dalia and her home is in a little village just outside Lembang, the weekend mountain retreat for Bandung residents.

Anders' parents receive letters and photos from Dalia, and are told of her progress in school by her foster family. She is 11 years old and lives with her foster mother in a village called Desa Taruna Lembang. It is part of the SOS Children's Villages network of such communities throughout the world, which aim to provide homes for children abandoned by their parents or orphaned.

While in Bandung for the weekend, Anders visited Dalia and her family in their home. He had a present for Dalia from his parents, and was interested in seeing the community for himself.

The village, about 15 kilometers north of Bandung, is reached by taking a winding road past pricey hotels and stalls selling roast corn and rabbit sate.

SOS Children's Villages is an international organization based in Austria, with villages in 131 countries throughout the world which care for 31,700 children. There are five such communities in Indonesia located in East Jakarta, Semarang, Bali, Flores and here in Lembang.

They are all run with money from donors and some corporate sponsors. FIFA, the international soccer organization, recently began a high-profile sponsorship program with SOS Children's Villages. However, most of the money comes from people like Anders' parents, and there are over 6 million private sponsors around the world.

The Lembang village consists of 13 foster mothers, each with a house of their own, caring for a total of 151 children. The houses are arranged on the side of the hill with small paths and steps connecting to the central paved road, a cul-de-sac surrounded by bougainvillea. On the other side of this road is a central hall complex that includes classrooms and meeting areas, administration offices, a kindergarten and a library.

When we arrived, Dalia was helping her foster mother, Christina Riani, clean their house, where she lives with nine other children. She was very shy but smiled and greeted Anders bravely when introduced.

Ibu Riani, in her late 30s, is not their mother in the biological sense, of course, but is in every other way. She has never married and has no children of her own.

"Dalia, being the oldest daughter in the family, helps a lot with looking after the other family members and house affairs," Riani said.

Dalia also attends drawing and ballet classes, and seemed thrilled with the new dance outfit Anders gave her.

The other children include Mira, the youngest at 18 months, and Anton, who is 16 and the oldest in Dalia's family. He was on crutches recovering from a motorbike-induced ankle injury when we visited.

Gregor H. Nitihardjo, the national director of SOS Children's Villages, explained that the villages aim to give orphans a second chance in life by providing them with a family, a home and schooling. "We aim to give back to the children what they have lost."

Dedicated mothers are the most important component for the village to operate, Gregor said. "They are just like biological mothers, they are there for the children 365 days a year, 24 hours a day."

All the mothers are single, and cannot marry while they work for the village. Gregor admitted that this may seem very restrictive, but said it would not work any other way. He explained that if a mother was married and had her own children, conflicts with other children would be inevitable. The dedication required of village mothers would also create problems for a married couple, he said.

"Sex is also not an issue for the women. Maybe you find this hard to believe in your culture, but here it is OK," he explained.

Each mother has an assistant, who can become a mother herself after six months if they are accepted and still think they can handle the responsibility.

Ibu Riani's house is a tidy three-bedroom place with glass doors at the back with a view out over the hills. All the shelves in the living area are completely covered by dolls and soft toys of all shapes and sizes. She is Catholic, and the houses on either side are Muslim. The children's religion follows that of their mother.

Another philosophy of the organization, Gregor said, was that "every child has the right to an education". All children in the village attend school when they are old enough.

A nearby elementary school was built by the organization but is now government-run. Dalia, in grade four, attends the school, which is named in memory of Hermann Gmeiner, the Austrian founder of SOS Children's Villages.

The mothers help the elementary school children with their homework, but those in high school study together in the evenings in the community house with village educators.

"The male educators are the fathers," Gregor said. They do not live in the houses but work in the community center. They help solve unavoidable family problems, arrange outdoor activities and also take care of the administrative work.

When the children finish senior high school, they are expected to be able to support themselves. Many find work, and some continue their studies in university. One former village resident is now studying at a Yogyakarta university. Another plays professional soccer for a Bandung team.

The village and surroundings have an enviable view and are also pleasant. The whole place is circled by neat hedges, and there is a playground for the younger kids, and a soccer field that seemed to get a lot of use. Kids ran around everywhere, just like in any village.


In fact, the children at Desa Taruna appear to have in some ways a better quality of life than many kids in Jakarta. So how are the lucky children selected to become part of the community in Lembang?

"We don't accept children with economic problems," Gregor said. He explained that children from poor families, although they may have very difficult lives, "still have love". Not all the children at Desa Taruna are orphans.

For example, Dalia was brought to the village when she was an infant by her uncle, after her mother was paralyzed in an accident and could no longer care for her.

Children over the age of 10 are generally not accepted, and older children often find it harder to adjust to life at the village. Children have to do their fair share of work. Meals are eaten always as a family, and problems are addressed as a family group.

Gregor said that in the past street kids had been taken in and that in a few cases had stayed a few days and then run away again, preferring the freedom to do whatever they wish to the stable, but routine, life at the village.

What about Gregor, how did he end up here?

"Since I was six years old I wanted to be an astronomer," he explained. He studied astronomy at the Bandung Institute of Technology, and later worked as an assistant lecturer. Part of his work was at the Lembang Observatory, which is just over the back fence of Desa Taruna. He got to know the kids and other residents and became interested in the organization. When the village director retired in 1989 Gregor took over the role, and he later became the organization's Indonesian director.

Gregor's mother is Swiss, and he has spent some years in Switzerland, and has also attended courses on social services in Austria during his 10 years with the organization.

By the time we left it was dusk, and we were offered a ride back down into Bandung. Stuck in the bottleneck of townsfolk returning from their day in the hills, Gregor filled us in on a bit of local culture. He described, for instance, that there once were many rabbits sold as pets along the side of this road. But with the onset of the economic squeeze, the cages disappeared and many stalls began stocking rabbit sate instead.