Congolese refugee family fights for Kenyan baby

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A Congolese family uprooted by war went to court today seeking to be reunited with a Kenyan baby they say they found abandoned on the roadside in a case testing the right of refugees to adopt.

The case could be a first in global legal history, the family’s lawyer and the U.N. refugee agency say.

“I believe it would set a precedent. The law is silent on whether refugees can adopt,” lawyer Rose Mbanya told Reuters as the case began at Nairobi’s High Court.

Teacher and small businessman Jean-Pierre Tombo Milenge, 47, fled Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern town of Goma with wife Alphonsine Kavira Salambongo, 43 and their 9 children in 2005 when, he says, rebels sought to recruit him.

In August 2007, Salambongo came across a baby boy, believed to be one-year-old, sitting alone by the side of a Nairobi road covered in filth. “The baby had gone to the toilet on itself. Nobody dared touch him,” she told Reuters.

According to the family, police told them they would have to give the child to an orphanage, but six homes declined to take him in. So the refugees made space for the baby at their tiny house in the Kenyan capital.

The boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, quickly became a cherished member of the clan and the family applied to adopt him, Milenge and his lawyer said.

After eight months, however, children’s authorities stepped in, and took the boy away to a children’s home in Nairobi, devastating the family, they said.

“They instructed the orphanage that we can’t visit him — they even said they wanted the child to forget us,” Milenge said. “At Christmas, we came with gifts and were denied access.”


Ahmed Hussein, director of the children’s department in Kenya’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Development, said his office could not comment on a matter before the court.

High Court family judge Kalpana Rawal on Friday asked all parties, including the child and a representative from the U.S. embassy, to return on March 13 for a detailed hearing to work out the best interest of the boy, now about two-and-a-half.

“It’s taking very long. By that time, I don’t know whether he’ll remember. A young child can even forget his own mother,” she said.

The family says they are due to leave for the United States in March, and want to take the baby with them.

“In spite of our refugee status, we verily believe that we can make and had made good parents for the child … and provide him with a loving family,” the Congolese head of family said in his court statement.

“It is our humble view that we have been discriminated against due to our status of being refugees without any basis in law for doing this… My children had also grown very fond of (the child) whom they referred to as their youngest brother.”

A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Nairobi said the situation appeared unprecedented.

“This is the first time we’ve experienced it,” he said, adding: “If a refugee wants to adopt in Kenya, they have to go through the adoption laws in Kenya like any other foreigner.”

The abandonment of babies is a common phenomenon in Kenya and elsewhere around Africa, where poverty-stricken mothers often despair of being able to provide for offspring.

Kenya hosts tens of thousands of refugees from conflict zones around the region, including Sudan and Somalia.

– Reuters

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