The Boy Who Returned Home

Lost Boys Series

Ismail reunited with his mother in Sierra Leone. Photo: Flavia Giordani/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

When the Sierra Leonean community in Mauritania first contacted IOM, the UN Migration Agency, it was to seek help to find a young boy who had escaped from the Mahadra (Koranic school) and had gone missing for days. The boy was Ismail¹, a nine-year-old from a poor neighborhood near Freetown, Sierra Leone. He had arrived in Mauritania in 2016, sent by his family to study the Koran.

A very active, euphoric and smart boy, Ismail had decided to escape because he was unhappy in Mauritania. He was also not happy with his studies. He just wanted to go back to Sierra Leone, back to his family. When IOM staff first met him, he was always staring at the ground, scowling. Although only 140cm tall, Ismail’s gaze seemed that of a world weary grown man.

It was clear to the IOM team that he knew exactly what he wanted and that he would not give up until he got it. As he did not want to go back to the Mahadra, IOM placed him with a host family where he could spend some time with the family’s children and play around in Nouakchott, the capital city of Mauritania.

In Mauritania, IOM placed Ismail with a host family temporarily. Photo: Flavia Giordani/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

Eventually IOM located his family, and facilitated his return home in December 2016. In March 2017, IOM Mauritania followed up with a visit to assess how he was getting on.

“We were getting to his house and as we were crossing the market we saw him running towards us with a friend. He was full of joy, he jumped in the car and started laughing. I never saw him so happy before” — Flavia Giordani, IOM Mauritania Child Protection Focal Point

IOM visited his house and met his mother and little sister.

Ismail with his little sister. Photo: Flavia Giordani/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

Ismail is now attending an English school in the morning and a Koranic school in the afternoon and IOM continues to monitor his progress.

“Ismail showed us all his school books. He was so proud. He wants to become a professor. Visiting him was really important, not only to see the results of our efforts to assist him but to appreciate his and his family’s efforts to change their lives for the better. When we sat down to see his schoolwork, he took a letter from his bag and the title was “To my best friend. He started crying … joyful tears. The letter was for my colleague Melainine, the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) focal point” — Flavia Giordani.
Back home, Ismail wishes to continue his studies. Photo: Flavia Giordani/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017
Ismail’s school books. Photo: Flavia Giordani/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

Unaccompanied migrant children are children who have been separated from both parents or other relatives or guardians and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so². Those children often undergo long journeys and face challenging life experiences not commonly appropriate for a child. They are therefore, forced to mature much earlier than normal and end up developing strong decision-making capacities.

For this reason, in the process of assisting them, IOM ensures that children are actively involved in decisions regarding their future, including the decision to continue their education, to work or to combine both. The Organization is committed to promoting and protecting the rights of unaccompanied migrant children, having their best interests as the top priority in all its activities.

Since October 2016, IOM Mauritania, in collaboration with other missions in the region and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), assisted six unaccompanied migrant children in their journeys back home, helping them enter the formal educational system, and assisting their families in engaging in businesses that will allow them to strengthen their self-sufficiency and improve the household’s living conditions.


1The name has been changed to protect identity.

2Convention on the Rights of the Child of 20 November 1989 (CRC), Article 1 — For the purposes of the present Convention, a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.

This post was written by Flavia Giordani in IOM Mauritania and edited by Jorge Galindo in IOM HQ.