James Okina, The Street Priest of Nigeria

After the separation of his parents when he was eight years old, James Okina had turned to a gang for a sense of belonging. The absence of his parents affected his education, skipping class and stopped paying attention. Okina’s cousin inspired him to change his path in life. Redirecting his focus, Okina took his rightful place as the top student of the class. His experience with street life allowed him to build relationships and connect with the young children he came across. There is an estimated 8.6 million orphaned children in Nigeria, earning money by selling plastic bags of water and washing windshields at traffic stops. Life on the streets increases the chances of illnesses, violence, drug usage, malnourishment and the harassment by law enforcement.

  Linus Unah for NPR

Linus Unah for NPR

Lynching for petty theft is the reality of many of the children who claim the streets as a home. Feeling like there is no one to cry out to as their world falls apart. Does the world not care? This is a question that each child has contemplated as they watched their friends die, one by one.

Okina’s first idea to help the children of Nigeria was to use his own money to pay off school fees. Working part-time at LaShkara Wear and Branding, he paid $50 covering the fees for two children. His second idea was to help the children earn their own money without relying on the streets. He pitched the idea of having a few of the children work at LaShkara Wear and Branding cleaning the office. Anselm Imokhai, who was the general manager at the time, took some convincing at first, but in the end he agreed to hire four kids.

August 2015 was the beginning of a new journey, Okina founded Street Priests, a nonprofit organization that tackles problems of the street children of Calabar. Why choose the name Street Priests? “A lot of people say that the name Street Priests is too religious, we need to change it, but I explain that we are priests, but our church is on the street. We have a calling, like typical priests — to reach out to children on the streets.”

Okina wanted to expand his dream, raising money and writing to local charities to pay the tuition for more children on the street. He tried to find places for the kids to live, but some still stayed on the street. Finding homes for all of them was not possible at the moment.

  Linus Unah for NPR

Linus Unah for NPR

Two years later, Street Priests is run by fifty volunteers ranging from the ages 18 to 22. In 2015, James Okina was recognized for his work. Awarded $10,000 for being one of the winners of the Future Africa Leaders Award. A global youth initiative, We Are Family Foundation named Okina a 2017 Global Teen Leader. With Street Priests new shift in focus, it now includes educating the community on child rights, creating safe places for the children and advocating the rights of children.  His determination and compassionate spirit is breaking the assumption that street kids are hardened.

 

Article by Kalyn Kearney