Joshua Daniel was 7 years old when, after a fight with his mother, he left home in the Nigerian port city of Calabar and began living on the streets. For six years, Daniel traipsed through the city scavenging for corrugated scrap metal to eke out a living.
“You have to play the tough guy to survive,” says Daniel, who is now 15. “We slept at a store every night after the storekeeper locked up and left.”
Daniel has now returned to school and stays at a hostel provided by a local church. He is among hundreds of former street kids who, thanks to a group of eight teenagers, are receiving shelter and help to attend school. Since 2015, the youth-led nonprofit known as Street Priests has worked to address these children’s most pressing needs: food and shelter, education, protection from abuse, and skills training and mentorship.
While other NGOs have seen limited success helping street kids, Street Priests has an advantage because its young leaders can relate directly to their experience. The NGO’s founder, 18-year-old James Okina, himself turned to a gang for a sense of belonging after his parents separated when he was 8, but he later abandoned street life under the positive influence of a cousin.
“I felt compelled to change [street kids’] lives when I met a street kid one evening in 2014 who spoke good English but looked disheveled and had to dance in bars to survive,” says Okina, who studies at the University of Calabar. So he gave up his job as the marketing manager of a local fashion brand to launch the nonprofit.
As a first step, Street Priests’ staff visit Calabar’s alleyways and simply sit and talk with street kids for hours about how they can make a life off the streets. The NGO partners with other organizations to offer free tutoring, a nutrition program, and information about substance abuse. It also has reunited several children with their parents and arranged for the adoption of more than a dozen more.
“The smallest thing you do for these kids can have a big impact on them,” says 18-yearold Godwin Ovat, Street Priests’ head of partnerships and a sophomore at the University of Calabar.
Worldwide, an estimated 100 million children live on the streets, according to the UN children’s agency Unicef. In Nigeria, 10.5 million children do not attend school—the most of any country. These kids—who leave home for reasons such as poverty, neglect, or the death of a parent—largely miss out on education and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. They also face social stigma. People in Calabar call them by the nickname “Skolombo,” a derogatory term for criminal urchins, and accuse them of attacking and stealing from commuters.
Negative views of street kids have hampered past efforts to help them and made launching Street Priests difficult, Okina says. “We couldn’t even use public spaces for our campaigns, and there was no acceptance from the community,” he says.
Street Priests now seeks to change perceptions of these children; its Facebook page regularly features street kids’ personal stories. “They grow up to be tough and rough because they see the adult world as a constant threat, and they believe that people hate them,” says Okina.
Most of the NGO’s money comes from its team members’ personal contributions, donations from charitable individuals, and, most recently, ticket sales for a performance that Street Priests organized in Calabar Mall, the city’s largest shopping center. There, young people performed poems, songs, and dances on the theme of street kids’ lives.
“James [Okima] and his team have been successful in rehabilitating and mentoring street children, and significantly reducing the rate of crime that street kids and teenagers tend to commit on a daily basis,” says Grace Ihejiamaizu, who teaches sociology at the University of Calabar and manages iKapture Networks, a social enterprise that provides after-school education and services to students and out-of-school youth in Nigeria. She adds that Street Priests has inspired other young people to launch similar projects. Meanwhile, the NGO is looking to expand to other parts of Nigeria and hopes to reach tens of thousands of children.
Joshua Daniel, the former street kid, will start junior high school next year and beams with pride as he talks about the future. “I hope to become an actor one day so I can influence a lot of people and help them to do good things,” he says.