A foster care survivor’s journey to independence

Without a word, Fekri’s disarming, toothy smile betrays the suffering he endured coming of age in the New York City foster care system.  His crooked pearly whites also hide the agony of being sold into slavery in Tunisia at the age of 5 for a mere $100.

Taken from Tunisia, Fekri was exchanged between parental figures that were often physically and sexually abusive. At age 9, he was beaten severely in Jackson Heights, Queens by his family of the moment. After he was hospitalized, the city recommended he not return to an abusive environment.

Without doting parents, Fekri spent most of his formative years in the less than picturesque settings of New York foster homes. At 21, Fekri was one of nearly 1,000 individuals that year forced to navigate independent living after “aging out” of the city’s foster system. These young adults must transition from a system of familiar structure to the unsettled, often cold reality of independence. According to a 2011 report by the Center for an Urban Future, roughly two-thirds of the 16,000 foster youth in America age out of the system without reuniting with their birth families or being adopted.

“I’ve been through hell and back,” explained Fekri, wearing faded, ripped jeans and a trendy white t-shirt. His inner strength has fueled his drive to succeed where others would have quit. He has overcome such obstacles as slavery, poverty, abuse and solitude to now enjoy some of the gifts of independence, including no direct supervision or curfew. 

But Fekri has yet to attain his full potential. Similar to half of foster youth that age out of the system each year, he has been unable to secure full-time employment. He has been relying on government assistance to pay rent for his studio in a South Bronx supportive housing complex. He must demonstrate to his caseworker that he can maintain a steady income before transitioning to living completely on his own.

“It’s quite apparent to me that former foster children fare poorly in the job market,” said Richard Altman, executive director of the Jewish Child Care Association, one of the city’s largest foster care agencies, in a 2011 the Center for an Urban Future report. “Children in foster care are behind on every indicator for future employment success once they leave care.”

According to a 2002 University of Chicago report, the average earnings of young adults that aged out of foster care has fallen below the poverty line. Many earned less than $6,000 per year in wages.

Fekri has worked part-time for the non-profit “You Gotta Believe!” The Coney Island organization is a homelessness prevention program for preteens and teens that live in the adoptive care system. “You can’t let what held you back before hold you back now,” he tells the program’s participants.

All told, Fekri has been more fortunate than some of his peers. According to a 2008 New York City Administration of Children’s Services and Department of Homeless Services study, 21 percent of all youth ages 16 and older that left foster care in 2004 entered a DHS shelter within three years. “I know a lot of kids that got out of Little Flower before us, and their outcomes are not as beautiful as this,” he said seated in his mostly empty Bronx studio.

Daniel, Fekri’s friend of 11 years, now lives in the same supportive housing building on Melrose Avenue in the South Bronx. These two close pals aged out of foster care simultaneously in December 2010. “He’s been there when I need someone to talk to and vice-versa,” Daniel said in a phone interview. Fekri added, “We vibe off each other.”

Fekri said at times he has felt isolated in the world’s biggest city because of limited contact with his biological family. The added support from Daniel, whom he considers a brother, has not been enough to keep him psychologically and spiritually afloat.

On a fall afternoon, Fekri sought the solace of a local Bronx church where he asked a priest to plug him into his neighborhood’s community support.  Since, he knows the odds are stacked against people like him, he has tried to make the most of available resources.

Recently, Fekri reconnected over the phone with his biological mother. A reunion, though, has remained elusive because of complications of a revolution in Tunisia. Even though his family bought him a ticket, he’s been reluctant to go there. He remains ashamed of sharing the trauma of his youth with those that brought him into this world. “I don’t want to let my mother know what happened,” he said.

Lacking family, social or work structure locally, Fekri’s mission to succeed continues to be an uphill battle. According to a report by the Center for an Urban Future, “The consequences of not effectively supporting foster youth in their transitions to adulthood are serious. Many foster youth slip from being minor wards of the state as children to adult wards of the state as prison inmates, welfare recipients or residents of homeless shelters.”

Regardless of society’s obstacles, Fekri maintains an upbeat attitude backed by his trademark grin. As he gazed out his bay window into a Bronx sunset, he described this juncture of his life: “It’s a stepping stone to full independence, or should I say, being self-sufficient to the extreme.”