Irem was only six years old when her mother abandoned her. As she didn’t have any relatives, she found herself in a children’s home. She still remembers her first day vividly and how her eyes were swallowed from crying. It took her sometime to adapt to her new environment. She was well fed and safe but she felt something was always missing in her life. She felt rejected. She longed for a family who would love her no matter what just like the other children she played with outside the orphanage.
Two years later, Irem’s life changed completely with a bag of chocolate coins. In the beginning it was like any other day. She was introduced to a volunteer visitor so that she can meet new people and socialize. Since it is traditional to bring children gifts, Irem’s visitor, Nesrin, had a huge box of chocolate since that’s what Irem always asked for. As Nesrin approached Irem with her gift in her hands, Irem told her that she didn’t want just any chocolate, she wanted chocolate coins. While all other visitors she had met before ignored this specific request and offered her the chocolate they bought, Nesrin didn’t. She went out and searched all over Canakkale for chocolate coins until she found one. When she returned back to the children’s home with a dozen chocolate coins , Irem’s face brightened with happiness. That’s when Nesrin realized that she wanted to give Irem more than a bag of candies, she wanted to give her a home. Despite the contradictions with her family and friends, Nesrin made the decision that changed her life and requested to adopt Irem. And when Irem was asked if she wanted to go with her, she didn’t hesitate for a second before shouting “yes” in joy.
As Irem moved to her new home, both she and Nesrin realized that life could be so much more. Irem blossomed with the care and love she was surrounded by. Her grades improved remarkably and she no longer had neither anxiety nor speaking difficulty. As Irem transformed into a new person, so did Nesrin. She was experiencing motherhood for the first time in her life and discovering a whole new world with Irem. And when Irem called her ‘mom’ for the first time, Nesrin cried with happiness. Today, Irem is a freshman at Okan University on full scholarship, a licensed sailor and a volunteer for animal shelters and nursing houses.
There are over 19,000 children in state care in Turkey. And all of them have the same potential as Irem to excel in life. However, they face many challenges during their childhood such as discrimination, lack of opportunities and being stereotyped by the society. These children have no father or mother to protect them or to love them. Life becomes even more challenging after they leave the care: To change the system for better, Abdullah Oskay, a care leaver who experienced these challenges from first hand, founded Hayat Sende Youth Academy.
Founded in 2007, Hayat Sende Youth Academy’s mission is to transform Turkey’s state care system by encouraging government institutions to develop effective strategies, policies and care models. In addition to promoting foster care, they provide mentoring, professional and life skills workshops, language and technology courses to children and young people living in institutions. So far, they touched the lives of over 25,000 children including Irem with their programs. They also have awareness building programs and work to change the bias on children under state care by sharing true success stories, like Irem’s.