For the fourth time I picked up the ringing phone, praying this time the connection would work. “Sebastian?” I said loudly, knowing that if a connection failed this many times in a row, my son had to be calling from Africa.
He greeted me quickly–we both knew we might get cut off any moment–then said, “Mom, I need to build a children’s home here. These children have no one and nowhere to go.” When the Peace Corps sent Sebastian to Benin, we had to search for it on a map. A tiny sliver of land in West Africa, nestled between Togo and Nigeria, it changed his life, and ours.
Sebastian was posted to Ouesse, a small town in the interior that had no running water and no electricity. But, amazingly, the town was near a cell-phone tower, and a local bar had a generator where he could pay to charge his phone.
The only vegetables available in the market were onions, peppers, and tomatoes, and protein was hard to come by. Sebastian would often buy a leg from a “bush rat,” with the hair still on it. So I’d send him food packages. I numbered the boxes, and only about one in three got to him. One that did had some precooked bacon. To go with it, he bought an egg–it cost fifty cents, about a day’s worth of his Peace Corps pay–and told me, “It felt like I was at Weber’s!”
When he called that day six years ago, local officials had just saved seven Togolese children from being trafficked for forced labor. A few years earlier, a UNICEF report had estimated that 200,000 children a year were trafficked across national borders in west and central Africa. Though national governments were stepping up efforts to stop it, no one in Ouesse was prepared to assist the slaves who were rescued.
Sebastian’s friend Victor Kinmagbahohoue was called in to help the Togolese children, who ranged in age from five to eleven. Sebastian went along. He was appalled to see them pulled out of cells in a local jail and pushed forward one at a time to be interviewed. “They need a home, not a jail cell,” Sebastian told me.
In August 2008, he began fund-raising to build the children’s home. Back in Ann Arbor, we helped by putting fliers in the bulletin at our church, Christ the King, and getting the word out to friends. By November, he had raised the $30,000 he needed to start building the Center for Children in Difficult Situations–in French, Centre d’Accueil et d’Ecoute des Enfants en Situation difficile, or CAEES.
CAEES inaugurated its children’s home in August 2009. Amazingly, my husband Gerard was able to join a mission trip to Ghana at the same time, and traveled to Benin for the ceremony. The home provides short-term shelter for trafficked children, victims of abuse, and other children in vulnerable situations, and long-term care for orphans.
Sebastian came back to Michigan that September. When Gerard and I took him to dinner at Red Robin, he barely ate half his hamburger, and was shocked to see us finish meals that in Ouesse, he told us, could have fed two families.
Victor now runs the CAEES home. Sebastian is in grad school at Yale, studying social enterprise. But his work in Africa is far from done. He started a nonprofit, Dagbe, to support the home and the children who live there.
It has been a struggle. In addition to his own schooling, a workday for my son now consists of figuring out how to help pay to house and educate a little girl who was rescued from a situation of trafficking and sexual exploitation, or to support the infant who was found abandoned, barely alive, in a trash heap.
Since August, CAEES also has been conducting an Ebola prevention and education campaign, informing people in Benin how the virus is spread, and what precautions they can take to avoid infection. Neighboring Nigeria was declared Ebola-free in October; to date, no cases have been confirmed in Benin.
Sebastian’s heart was enlarged by his Peace Corps experience–it now houses a whole village in Benin. As I have watched him pour heart, soul, and savings into Ouesse, there have been times I wished he had picked an easier career. But then I remind myself that he willingly chose this path, knowing where he was needed the most. Though it is not an easy life, I can join my son in saying it is rich and satisfying each time he gets a phone call informing him that yet another child has found a home, or has returned home, with the help of Dagbe.