The premises of the Al Noor Orphanage felt like no man’s land on Wednesday, a far cry from a place usually buzzing with children playing on the grassy fields or tending to the food garden. The orphanage has come under immense scrutiny this past week – as it faces multiple allegations of sexual abuse of minors. At the same time, the organisation’s founder, a Cameroonian woman known as Amina Madien, was arrested on fraud and corruption charges – allegations that have surfaced in the past. While authorities investigate the allegations, the child care centre was shut down by the social development officials and the 17 children removed from the facility.
VOC News visited the orphanage and as we walked through the grounds, we found the facility to be quiet and desolate. We walked past several coloured containers, which contains a library and sewing room, before we were welcomed by staff inside the main building. As we entered the reception area, we were greeted with a strong stench – perhaps damp and mould. It was unpleasant.
Except for a few staff and a toddler milling around, there were no children on the premises. One of the board members Rashid was polite and eager to show us around. We made our way through the reception area and noticed the walls filled with rakams, Arabic teachings and a small salah room. We winded into a badly-lit communal room, where the children can watch television, eat and do their homework. Close by was a large, untidy kitchen where volunteers prepare the kid’s meals.
We were taken to the boy’s sleeping quarters, where there were eight double bunks. The rooms were in a dishevelled state – the beds unmade, and shoes and clothes could be seen laying around. The girl’s bedrooms and bathrooms were also unkept – a sad reminder of the children was once there.
One of the staff members said the rooms were left in the same state the day the 17 children were removed by social services officials from the orphanage.
According to staff, the kids were left traumatised by the ordeal – some left crying, while others were confused.
One of the child care workers emphatically denied allegations of sexual abuse of minors and say no children were ever mistreated at the institution. She says she developed a close bond with many of the children, who would often open up to her about their problems. Many of the children come from homes where they have been victims of abuse and trauma.
“Those kids know they could come to me with anything. If there was something happening, I would have picked it up. So we as staff don’t see how this could have happened,” says Kashifa.
Asked why 35 children with no documentation were on the premises the day Amina Madien was arrested, Kashifa says the youth, who are from local informal settlements, are part of an outreach programme. They were planning to spend a few days at the orphanage as part of a school holiday programme. They were removed by social services officials and placed back with their families.
Kashifa says the children have regular sessions with a counsellor and social workers, whom she believes, would have detected abuse. Asked about past allegations of drug pedalling, prostitution and abuse, board member Rashid Sibiya says no claims were ever proven.
But there’s another shadow hanging over the organisation – that of its financial dealings. The orphanage relies mostly on donor funding from businesses and individuals in the community. But Amina Madien is accused of re-directing these funds, meant for the upkeep of the centre, to a personal account and using it for her own gain.
Rashid maintains the centre’s operations and its financial dealings are above board. He has dismissed the allegations of fraud and corruption against Madien, saying “every organisation has its ups and downs”.
“The government does not support us in any way to pay the child care workers. There were times where we were not paid for two months. But Amina would make a way and borrow money to pay staff,” he explains.
When asked about the dismal state of the facility, the staff claimed that donor funding was not enough to cover maintenance and improvements to the building. There are concerns that regular donors will withdraw their funding due to the allegations.
“We have to cover each child’s school registration fees, then there’s uniforms, books and stationery. We get R500 here, R1000 there. We don’t get big money,” says Kashiefa.
“The kids never complained. They were never short of anything. If they are happy, we are happy,” she adds.
The staff say they will appeal the Department of Social Development’s decision to close the facility. Rashid, who shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head, says he feels a sense of hopelessness and despair.
“I don’t know what to say any more. But the truth will come out.”
VOC News will continue to follow the story.