South Africa: Young Fire Victims Get Help

Volunteer Brian Comrie walks Dorah Mokoena inside after playing on the swingset at Children of Fire

More than 15,000 children are severely burned each year from fires in South Africa. An organization called Children of Fire was created in 1997, to help child survivors.

Dorah Mokoena was 6 months old when the shack she was living in caught fire. She sustained severe burn and was hospitalized when she was an infant.

Bronwen Jones, a native of the United Kingdom, read about the child in the newspaper and visited her in the hospital.

Jones was living in South Africa when she learned how the fires caused devastation in the settlements. Using all her contacts in Britain, she created The Dorah Mokoena Trust and eventually the Children of Fire Trust—a similar charity fund for child burn victims. Over a few years the charity began to garner more attention and consequently expanded into Children of Fire International.

Mokoena, now 17, lives with 17 other child burn victims at the Children of Fire house in Johannesburg. The house is located a few blocks away from the Johannesburg School for the Blind, where child survivors attend school and stay.

The mission of Children of Fire charity was to cater to and to provide for other children who are burn survivors like Mokoena. The charity takes in children from all over the world but many come from all over Africa due to the frequent fires in informal settlements.

Fires in shanty towns, informal settlements and slums injure many children. In these impoverished communities, parents and caregivers often have no money to pay for expensive medical costs.

Volunteer Brian Comrie said: “There is no electricity in these squatter camps, so people are getting burnt. The cause could be as simple as putting a stove near the bed to keep warm or a falling candle that was used for light.”

Comrie recently moved from Texas to spend his next year volunteering at Children of Fire.

“I realized I wanted to do more with my life . I researched Children of Fire, thought it was a great charity and applied last minute,” Comrie said.

The Braille alphabet mounted on the walls inside a classroom at the Johannesburg School for the Blind

On a typical day, volunteers like Comrie take children to the hospital for treatment, teach them Braille, help with homework or cook meals.

When children return from school at 3 p.m., volunteers assist with homework. They do this in a typical and nurturing learning environment for the children.

The volunteers and teachers try to create a normal learning atmosphere for the children.

Volunteer Londeka Ngidi, who is a burn survivor, has been with Children of Fire as a volunteer for a year. Before that she was at Children of Fire receiving treatment for her burns. When Ngidi was an infant, boiling water spilled onto her, burning her scalp and arms. In 2003, she came to Children of Fire at the age of 11.

“They learn normal subjects,” Ngidi said, “They have different classes and learn seven different subjects.”

Ngidi talked about the difficulty of teaching the children because the children come and go at Children of Fire. A child may stay for a year or longer or only for a few months.

Jones or a worker will adopt a child who is abandoned by their family because of their condition.

Ngidi said that it is common for a child to be abandoned after a burn accident. A family may not know how to adapt to the situation or may feel embarrassed.

Rosie Chirongoma, an employee at Children of Fire, shares the possibility of adopting a child burn survivor who is currently in the hospital waiting to know if her parents will come back or keep her.

The volunteers and employer agree that when a child is abandoned it is the most heart-breaking part of the job because they understand the difficulty that lies ahead for them.

“These kids want to be normal and they are, they are crazy, they’re kids,” Comrie said.

When a child is abandoned, a social worker is responsible for figuring out where the child can go to live.

When a child goes to Children of Fire, they must undergo a long application process completed by their family or social worker in order stay with the charity.

“The children have to go through a long process. We need all the necessary requirements like passports, blood tests, we need to know what is wrong with the child, if the child has AIDS and so on,” Comrie said.

A child’s family will then bring them to the charity or work with the charity to find alternative transportation.

Ngidi said that if a child lives near Johannesburg then the process is easier than a child who lives hours away.

The charity has to work out transportation for a child who lives a long drive or plane ride away from Johannesburg because it is the only charity of its kind in Africa.

“The need is so much greater up north [of Africa] and it would be nice if we could establish up there. It would be nice to keep them close to their families and they could get the treatment they need there,” Chirongoma said.

The charity continues to work toward helping children and raising awareness. The volunteers and workers at Children of Fire are dedicated to change the future of these children and the settlements they live in.

“We need to raise awareness to the world and help these children,” Comrie said.

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