NEW YORK (Reuters) - Four Tanzanian children with albinism who lost limbs, fingers, and teeth in superstition-driven attacks made their way home this week after receiving prosthetics - and a dose of confidence - in the United States.
The children, ages 7, 14, 15 and 16, were treated free of charge at Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.
Their travel and housing expenses were covered by the Global Medical Relief Fund, a New York-based charity that helps children who have been injured in conflicts or disasters.
“When they come here, they have lost so much. They have lost part of their youth and part of their dignity,” said Elissa Montanti, founder of the fund, who housed them in the New York City borough of Staten Island.
“We put them back together,” she said. “When they go back, they have a stronger sense of empowerment.”
To stay in the United States, the children would have to file for asylum, and the fund can only afford to pay for the them while they receive medical care, Montanti said.
Albinism is a congenital disorder that causes lack of pigment in skin, hair and eyes. According to the World Health Organization, in sub-Saharan Africa 1 in 5,000 to 15,000 people could be affected.
In Tanzania, it affects about 1 in 1,400.
Albinos are attacked for their body parts, which are highly prized in witchcraft and can fetch a high price. Superstition leads many people in Tanzania to believe that albinos are ghosts who bring bad luck.
The United Nations estimates that at least 75 albinos were killed in Tanzania between 2000 and 2015 but says that could represent a fraction of the attacks as most occur in secretive rituals in rural areas.
As they moved through the stages of treatment and recovery, drawing, talking among themselves in Swahili, searching for YouTube videos on Google and watching cartoons helped the children heal. They typically visited the hospital five times during their two to three month stay.
Mwigulu Magesa, 14, said he wants to be president of Tanzania one day. Emmanuel Rutema, 15, wants to be a doctor.
Though they have a good grasp of English, which they study at home, the children were accompanied by Ester Rwela, a translator and social worker with the charity Under the Same Sun, which advocates for people with albinism.
“The first time the Tanzanian kids came in, there was not a lot of conversation. They were extremely shy. They kind of huddled together in a pack,” said Dr. Scott Kozin, chief of staff at Shriners Hospital.
“They weren’t used to us and we weren’t used to them, and there were a lot of awkward moments. And then as they got to know us, they started to open up to me and to the staff and to the therapists,” he said.
The children are able to attach and adjust prosthetic arms to their bodies, wash their laundry by hand and hang it to dry and make dinner.
Near the end of their stay, they would walk into the hospital with confidence, sporting sunglasses and button-down shirts and looking “like they were home,” Kozin said.
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Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Thomson Reuters Foundation; Photographs by Carlo Allegri; Writing and editing by Melissa Fares and Toni Reinhold