A social worker’s encounter with a child abuse victim taught her a valuable life lesson.

It was my first day at work at a children’s shelter when a call came in regarding a 10-year-old boy who had been abused and injured. He managed to escape his perpetrators and was rescued by concerned citizens.

After spending three months in the hospital, he was discharged and handed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) due to his status as a refugee. According to the officer, they had tried to place him in various homes but no one could handle him.

When we met Atan (not his real name) at our children’s home, we were horrified at the extent of his physical injuries. His little body was covered in slash wounds, cigarette burns and scars. It broke even the strongest among us. We were told that when he was found, he could not even speak as someone had punched him so hard in the mouth that he lost some teeth.

Atan was obviously terrified to be among strangers in an unfamiliar environment. For the next hour, he was running all over the garden trying to escape from the compound. The look of terror on his face was an image I couldn’t erase for many months. Not knowing what to do, I finally decided to gather the other children whom I had just befriended minutes earlier, and together we approached Atan. He relaxed a little when he saw his peers.

I stretched out my hand to him, smiled, and told him that I’m a friend. Thankfully, he seemed to understand and slowly gave me his hand.

Within minutes, Atan was playing with the other children. He seemed to be a bright child and when praised, his face lit up with a big smile. However, because of his religious status, we were unable to take him in. It was heartbreaking to see him go.

However, that was not the last we heard of Atan. Within a period of two months, he had moved in and out of five different homes. None of the homes were equipped to handle his seemingly aggressive behaviour and chaotic sleep pattern. I just could not bear to see him being kicked around, neither could I allow him to be hunted down by his abusers.

I told the management of the shelter that I was taking Atan in, no matter what.

As expected, the first two months were not a walk in the park. Besides communication barriers, we had to set firm boundaries for him whilst letting him know that boundaries were there to protect him, and not to hurt him. He had to learn to sleep at night – something he found difficult to do. We suspected that most of his abuse happened at night. He was small in stature but he ate adult portions.

With the minimal English that he understood, I taught him what the rules were. There were times when he protested – like when I told him that his TV time was up. I learnt to put my foot down. Eventually, when he saw that I wasn’t going to entertain any tantrum or go back on my word, his attention-seeking behaviour was markedly reduced.

We were also concerned that Atan had been sexually abused as he displayed sexual behaviour that was grossly inappropriate for his age.

We tried everything we could to help Atan adjust. I made arrangements for an interpreter to come and spend time with him every alternate day. The interpreter opened up communication channels between Atan and I. There was much I wanted to know about this boy. Was he happy at the home? Was he still afraid of his abusers? What else could we do to make him happy?

We also needed an interpreter to teach him more complicated rules, such as those involving inappropriate touch.

Atan made progress beyond our expectations. When he felt secure, he was the sweetest boy I’d ever met. Both of us spent a lot of time just talking while we played, drew or read together. I took the opportunity to ask Atan bits and pieces of his past, like how he got those wounds. To my surprise, he could remember the story behind every burn or slash mark. I assured him we would do everything we could to make sure that he would be spared further abuse.

Of course, there were bad days, too. Because of his past, certain things would trigger memories and he would revert to his old coping mechanisms. It was heartbreaking to see him shiver in fear in a corner. There was once when he was punished for touching other children inappropriately, but because of his past, he couldn’t differentiate between reprimand and abuse.

In the days following that incident, he would cry easily and was withdrawn. I immediately arranged for his case worker and interpreter to come over so that we could explain things to him. We explained why he was punished, and taught him the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch.

After just four months, Atan had mastered enough English to communicate with us. He was very proud of his newly acquired skill. Atan was an energetic and active boy who loved the outdoors. There were times when he threw himself into our arms. At other times, he would sneaked behind my back, took my hand, and said “Thank you” with a big smile.

Atan’s story reminded me of the resilience of human nature. We never know what we are capable of handling until we’ve gone through it ourselves. I could understand Atan’s fears and insecurity. I know what it was like to feel as if nothing you do is ever right. I understood Atan’s sense of despair, dread and distrust. Yet in spite of all that, Atan had demonstrated a fierce fighting spirit. It was this tenacity that gave him the courage to escape his abusers. It was this same resilience that made us all proud of him.

Sadly, Atan was removed from the home earlier this year due to reasons beyond our control. I took comfort in the fact that we were able to touch his life during the 10 months he was with us. We showered him with love, and he responded to our kindness.

I pray that Atan will grow up to be a successful young man, and that his story will serve to inspire many. I thank him for teaching me to keep on fighting, no matter what I am going through in life.

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