Stepping Stones to Independence, Fekri’s Journey

Story By Tommy Hallissey
Photography by Bruce Byers

from Bruce Byers on Vimeo.

Without a word, Fekri’s disarming, toothy smile betrays the suffering he endured coming of age in the New York City foster care system. Those crooked pearly whites hide the agony of being sold into slavery in Tunisia at the age of 5 for $100.  Without parents to dote on him, Fekri has spent most of his formative years in loveless foster homes run by such organizations as Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York.  Now at 21, Fekri, who lives in a subsidized South Bronx studio apartment, is one of nearly 1,000 youth forced to navigate life as a self-sufficient individual after aging out of the city’s foster care system on the day of their first legal drink.  These youth, who often endured traumatic upbringings, must transition from a system full of familiar structure to the cold realities of independent living. According to a September 2011 report by The Center for an Urban Future, roughly two-thirds of the 16,000 foster youth in America, including Fekri, age out of the system without reuniting with their family or being adopted by a new one.


“I’ve been through hell and back,” Fekri explained in his studio. “The intensity I’ve been through is only a motive.” He said his inner strength fuels his drive to succeed when others would have quit.  Fekri, who has persevered through such obstacles as slavery, poverty, abuse and solitude, now enjoys the gifts of his independence, including no direct supervision or curfew. Yet Fekri, similar to half of former foster youth that aged out of the system, he has been unable to land full-time employment.  “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, told The Center for an Urban Future. “Children in foster care are behind on every indicator for future employment success once they leave care.”  Researchers have also found that employment is a principal predictor of success in the transition from the structure of foster care to independent living. However, due the economic crisis, there are 14 million other Americans out of work today. This has forced Fekri to navigate his early days of in-dependency without a job to anchor his life.
In lieu of college, he has been working part-time for the Coney Island non-profit You Gotta Believe, a homelessness prevention program for teens and preteens who live in the adoptive care system.

“You can’t let what held you back before hold you back now,” Fekri, who wore faded, ripped jeans and a white t-shirt, articulated.  “I’m limitless,” he added with a smile. Fekri is fortunate among 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 who left foster care in 2004 entered a DHS shelter within three years. “Their outcomes are not as beautiful as this,” he said seated in his spartan studio.

Fekri, who has limited contact with his biological family, aged out of foster care in December with his friend of 11 years, Daniel.. “He’s been there when I need someone to talk to and vice-versa,” Daniel, who lives in the same building on Melrose Avenue, said in a phone interview. Fekri’s added support from Daniel, whom he considers a brother, has not been enough to keep him psychologically and spiritually afloat. Recently, Fekri sought out a reconnection with his family; however a reunion has remained elusive because of a recent revolution in Tunisia.
Even though his family offered to pay for his flight to Tunisia, Fekri remains ashamed of sharing his experience in the stigma-inducing American foster system. “I don’t want to let my mother know what happened,” he said. “I don’t really need to put that on her.” Instead, on a recent afternoon in September, Fekri, still very much alone in New York, sought the support of the church to help plug him into social supports of a community in his neighborhood.Without work, family or social structure locally, the odds are stacked against a 21-year-old former foster youth, such as Fekri. “The consequences of not effectively supporting foster youth in their transitions to adulthood are serious,” according to a September 2011 Center for an Urban Future report. “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.” Fekri and Daniel, on the other hand, are lucky enough to have forged a mutually-beneficial friendship that has helped each other transition into the freedom of adulthood.  “It’s a stepping stone to full independence, or should I say, being self-sufficient to the extreme,” Fekri explained with his gaze fixated out his bay window, across the horizon.

You Can Help!

You Gotta Believe, based in Coney Island Brooklyn, is the only organization in American that focuses solely on facilitating adoptions for older teens and tweens, the hardest to place kids in the system. Adopting a teen or tween is one of the greatest ways to help youth so they never have to age-out of the system.  Donate, volunteer, or become an adoptive parent and help bring the gift of family to youth like Fekri.

Adopt an older foster kid.  Learn about becoming a permanent parent

Mentor a foster teen by becoming a Finding Family Mentor to teens aging out of foster care.  

Donate to help You Gotta Believe find families for teens.   

Call You Gotta Believe 718.372.3003

& share Fekri’s story with others so they too can learn about the plight of youth aging out of foster care.

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