A Discussion with Sadio Diop, Coordinator of the Institution of Islamic Well-Being for Orphans
August 18, 2015
Background: Sadio Issa Diop is the coordinator of the Islamic Charitable Institution for Orphans (IBIOS), a center based in the suburbs of Dakar. Lauren Herzog of WFDD spoke to him in August 2015 to explore the many activities of IBIOS, which supports vulnerable children in the neighborhood by providing various services. The institution has a health center, a Franco-Arabic school, and a mosque, all primarily to support children in terms of health, education, and religious guidance. Diop stresses the importance that the Qu’ran gives to supporting orphans, explaining the religious beliefs that motivate their work. He highlights how and why the definition of an orphan in Senegal differs from that of other countries. He also gives his perspective on the interfaith cohesion that is characteristic of Senegal. The institution supports about 180 children, half of them orphans.
My name is Issa Diop, and I am the coordinator of the Institution of Islamic Well-Being for Orphans. We are an association that was created in 1988 and that works for the well-being of orphans, at-risk children, and children from destitute families. Our parents [my sister’s and mine] were the first to really work so that this association could get off the ground; they began this project after they returned from Saudi Arabia, when they finished their studies. They decided to invest their time and money in caring for orphans, who are the most vulnerable people of all.
What made you decide to continue this work?
Our parents passed away in 2011. We continued our Islamic studies here. Then we both did French studies at the School of Saint-Michel; we studied social management, which has enabled us to continue our parents’ work. Being involved in the orphanage and in education and health projects was very interesting because it allowed us to help and support their mothers, who had become vulnerable because they no longer had husbands. This is what led us to want to continue this work.
Which is what really inspired the association?
When you are in Senegal, you are automatically out in the street. You get a preview of how the children live here. Senegalese children usually do not have any support, especially kids in the suburbs—and we live in a suburb. This is why we do everything we can to help these children, regardless of the difficult financial situations we are sometimes in ourselves. This show of solidarity will save them from their present insecurity in the streets, after which we try to educate and instruct them. We also don’t neglect their clothing and hygiene needs. All this is done in order to give these children the same opportunities other children have. This idea inspired our parents to create this association.
Their mothers don’t have time to take care of them or teach them, since they leave their homes to look for work and bring back what they need to live on. This is why they [our parents] wanted to create this association, which would be their way of contributing to the development of Senegal. It is true, the government is doing everything in its power to help destitute children. But one has to admit that there is much to be done on this front. Every Senegalese ought to contribute to the development of his country, so our parents decided to act on behalf of children—specifically orphans.
What is your definition of an orphan, here in Senegal?
Broadly and generically defined, an orphan is a child who has lost both parents or a child who has lost one of its two parents. But in Senegal, people tend to extend this definition to kids who roam the streets, even if their parents are alive, because to us there is no real difference between that child and an orphan, as that child also has no real support.
So we have a narrow definition of the orphan, and another, broader definition. We focus on the broader definition because that is the definition that will allow us to support childhood. The child himself is the one that interests us; we believe that a child should be helped, assisted, educated, and cared for. We talk about the project to support both orphaned children and at-risk children, so as not to leave those other kids who roam the streets without support.
You can’t leave these children behind either because there are parents who neglect their children. There are kids who hang out in the street from 8:00 a.m. in the morning to 8:00 p.m. at night. Still, we try to supervise those kids, too, even though orphans are really our main focus. We want to help Senegalese children—African children—regardless of their race, sex, or religion.
Are all the children Senegalese?
No, there are also children of other nationalities, but those are mostly Guinean children who maybe come to find work. So they bring all their children, leave for the market, and leave their kids in the street. They don’t even take care of them. And there are a lot who act this way. But we are doing our work; still, you must recognize that it’s difficult, because you have to hire teachers and pay them. As we’re a social and humanitarian association, we are required to do this because we must stand by our convictions, even when it’s difficult to do so. In other words, we emphasize the human side more than the financial side.
Can you tell us about the services you offer to kids?
Our complex consists of a Franco-Arabic school, so we teach French and Arabic in accordance with the official program (the program of the Senegalese government). We are an institution recognized by the ministry, and the school is recognized by the Ministry of Education, in the same way that our health center is recognized at the department level. We are not operating informally here. We participated in seminars, and we’ve been to the training office at the departmental inspection level in Pikine. The subjects were numerous and varied. There was math, science, and reading, as well as how a school director should behave around teachers, students, service personnel, etc. In our complex we have a school, a health center, and a mosque, because we believe that a child needs all those things.
We take care of the health needs of the orphans who are here for free; even in terms of clothing, we have partners that help us dress them properly. However, in providing food for them, we run into some difficulties. We can take care of some children, but not all. The financial resources are sometimes lacking. We focus on the goodwill we find at both national and local levels, since in Senegal we also have benefactors. We try to reach everyone to show them the work we do here. It's very difficult to live in the suburbs, especially with flooding and all other difficulties we encounter here. We do not always have the means to deal with this.
The initial project was to construct a building to house orphans so we could monitor them better. But the project could not be completed because of all the problems we encountered. The orphans who live here are treated well. At home, you know there are always problems because their mothers have no means and are always out looking for food. The orphan is always left to himself in the street and other unsuitable places; and this does not help us in what we want to do for the child in general. Support him, help him in the areas of education, health, etc.
The boy who just came in is named Mamadou. He lost his dad when he was one. It’s a bit difficult, but we still continue our activities. This is work that spans the areas of health and education. Since 1988, we (as well as our parents) have achieved many things. We’re young, so our goal is to do more. That’s why we want to open a door to the larger world. If we had the means to go to European countries and promote our work there, we would do it because the suburbs really need support. There are a lot of problems here.
How many children do you care for?
Last year, we took care of 180 children. Fifty percent of those kids were orphans; the others came from impoverished families (that cannot guarantee the schooling of their children). We don’t allow ourselves to turn kids away because of inability to pay. For us, what is the most important is the child, even if the father is negligent—or his mother—because it’s the children who are the future of the country.
Do the kids come from Muslim families?
Yes, the children come from Muslim families, but from different confréries [Sufi orders]. This doesn’t prevent them from having friends come play here, and their parents don’t have any problems with that. Since children are the future of our country, we musn’t neglect a single child, regardless of where he comes from. Even if it is true that we are an Islamic association, there are also Christian children here. We coexist well here. I have Christian friends and I have Muslim friends; we are comfortable together. We try to teach Islam to kids so they don’t end up destroying this.
We do everything we can to supervise and support them. It is certainly true that our resources are insufficient, but we do our best to instruct and support them into adulthood. I have a young Christian friend who is always with me, but neither his father nor his mother has a problem with that. This is because they know that I am not going to influence their son to become Muslim, and I will never do that. Because I respect other people’s religions. We live in perfect harmony in Senegal; no one forces anyone else to do anything he doesn’t want to. Similarly, we are a Muslim association with an understanding and a perfect acceptance of other religious faiths.
What interests our association the most is childhood. We educate children up to the CM2 class, which generally corresponds to the age of 12 years old. Then the child does CFE and the entrance examination for the sixth year, and he continues his studies. After, there is a choice to make. The parent must decide whether the child will continue in French or in Arabic. For orphans, we take care of all aspects. Even if they continue to middle school, we continue to monitor them.
If the child fails, we do everything we can to teach him a trade. We take the children to a carpentry or mechanics workshop, etc. We do everything we can to support the child up to the age of 15 or 16, and that requires a lot of resources. But we will continue on this path because that is what our parents wanted. We certainly have the skills and degrees to do other things that are less trying and more lucrative, but we have decided to stay and continue the wishes of our parents.
Do certain children live here, or is there housing in the neighborhood?
The initial plan was to construct a building where there would be enough housing for the orphans. But since the project is not finished yet, they are required to return to their houses. This isn’t what we want, though, and that is why we are looking for ways to rehabilitate this center to finally accommodate the orphans. I think it is from that point that we will be able to fulfill our role with respect to the children, because if we educate the child and he returns home in an environment that is not suitable, it destroys the work we've done.
As a result, what we want is to set up a rehabilitation project and see it through so that we can have space for these children. Our wish is to house the children here and educate them. There are certainly other projects that we are doing, but the center rehabilitation project is one of our priorities because we really do not want to let the children go home. But for the moment, we have no choice.
How does your Islamic faith motivate you in your work?
In the religious sphere, we have learned from our Prophet (PBUH) that there is great grace in helping an orphan. Even the simple act of touching his hair is rewarded. As for supporting him, feeding him, clothing him, and educating him, the Prophet (PBUH) said: "If you do this, you shall live in the same house as I.” And there are other verses in the Qur'an, such as: "Feed the poor and come to the aid of orphans." And it is the same thing in the Bible—we learned that there are verses that speak of this. Which means that all the prophets have focused on orphans, among them the prophet Issa (Jesus). On the purely religious level, there are verses that show the importance of helping and assisting the orphan, and since we have faith, this is a way for us to be in line with these divine verses.
There is also the humanitarian side, because we are all born equal, all equal before God. It is the human being that interests us; I will never stop repeating myself on this. It is the person as a human being that interests us, and that's our real strength. But this requires understanding and mutual respect, and we will fight together for that. This is how we can live together and share what we have in common. We can understand our differences, which must not separate us or cause us to have stormy relationships. Our work with orphans should be understood not only by a purely Islamic aspect, but also by its humanitarian side.
This is why, when we see a child, I see only the child and nothing else. I don’t look at his ethnicity or religious affiliation. I interact with a lot of Christian children here without ever acting in an inhospitable manner. Incidentally, there is a Christian child who, when we pray, joins us in worship. His mom has seen this several times, and this has never caused a problem, because she knows that I am never going to influence the kids. This is how we help the orphan children so that they can succeed on all levels.
How do you educate and orient the children in terms of religion?
Through a Franco-Arabic program. The child learns Arabic first, to know the language, after which he will learn the Qur'an and the Prophet's recommendations on how to behave around his parents, his family, his community, etc. He will also learn to avoid bad things like cigarettes, insults, fights, in short, to adopt good habits and abandon bad ones. In this way he will be brought into Islam, because Islam does not want that, Islam is peace. The child must have a tranquil mind and be open to everyone. He must respect the elderly and women and participate in the life of the community. We teach the child that he must contribute to the welfare of his family in his home, actively participate in the development of his neighborhood, and ultimately of his country. We really try to link what the child learns to his reality.
In terms of religious teaching, it is important to highlight that Senegal chose to be a secular country. Because Senegal is secular, we have the duty to accept and to respect the faiths of others. This kind of coexistence is very important. Incidentally, it is thanks to this that we have great stability in Senegal, because in Senegal, 90 percent of the population is Muslim. So one could ask why Senegal is not an Islamic country.
In the Arabic curriculum, there are scientific subjects and religious subjects, made up of Qur’anic sciences, hadith, jurisprudence, philosophy, etc. These religious subjects are typically recommended by Allah through his Prophet. We are not free people, in terms of our religion and our faith. This is a very important aspect which we must keep in mind. On the religious level, we try to include these subjects in the mind of the child. It is more difficult today than yesterday because people are too occupied by searching for material and personal goods.
As I mentioned earlier, parents have a tendency to leave children unattended, but the reality is that they are not actually abandoning them. It is only that they have problems feeding them, and when you have difficulty feeding a child, taking care of him becomes more difficult. An empty stomach can’t hear a thing, and a child who is always hungry and not getting enough sleep can’t learn anything.
Can you talk about the health center you built?
The first funding was for the school, then the health center, then, finally, the mosque. It was after the construction of the school that we told ourselves that we also needed a health center, because the nearest health centers are several kilometers away. This is a bit far, not only for the orphans, but even for the surrounding population. That is why we tried to do something health-related.
Since 2011 and the flooding, we did it for a two-year period, and we are currently looking to see how to pick it back up going forward. As for the three nurses who are here, they are interning in order to build their capacity. They are going to return in two or three months to continue their work at the health center, because the demand among the population is so strong. The health center will resume its activities, because our motto is to offer health services locally. We really emphasize this. The health personnel were there for a year, and I think that the floods are what paralyzed them a bit. But with the canal-building project, the complex will be saved, since it is considered an important community site.
You mentioned that there is also a mosque. Why did you build it?
In terms of the mosque, we felt the need when we realized that the children need to practice what they are learning in class. The recommendation of the Prophet (PBUH) was to build the school before the mosque because, to be able to run the mosque, you must first learn. You can’t run something if you are ignorant. One learns first how prayer is done before going to pray. If I need to build a school and a mosque, but my resources are only sufficient for a single building, then the school takes priority over the mosque.
The whole community comes to pray here. Friday sermons are not the only thing we do; there are also other activities. The mosque’s position is to show people how to live. Every Friday, we run this kind of program—or even every evening—and we allow anyone who wants to come learn their religion to do so. In other words, our contribution is not only for certain categories of the population—certainly, we help the orphans—but there are also programs for everyone. Everything we do is in the interest of the community as a whole, without distinction.