Baku's Working Children

Young children work illegally to support their impoverished families - with the government seemingly turning a blind eye.

Baku's Working Children

Young children work illegally to support their impoverished families - with the government seemingly turning a blind eye.

A creaking old bus drew up at a bus stop, its door opened and a small skinny boy in torn jeans and a woollen shirt jumped out ahead of the other passengers. With one hand, he collected money from the descending passengers and with the other fiercely scratched his head. Then he called out to the bus driver “Let’s go!” jumped back onboard and closed the door.

This young conductor is called Ahmed Mirzoyev. He is twelve years old, but looks much younger. He says he has been doing this job for two years.

“When I was eight my father left for Moscow,” said Ahmed sadly, pulling at a thin woollen hat in his arms. “He wasn’t earning much money here in Baku, so he had to go. In Moscow, he began working in a market. At first father sent us some money, but then he disappeared. Some of his friends say he’s settled down with a new family.”

Ahmed says his mother couldn’t support herself, Ahmed and his sister on the 60 manats (69 US dollars) a month family support subsidy they get from the government. That is why he had to leave school and begin working as a conductor on his neighbour’s bus.

“I earn one or sometimes even two manats a day,” said the boy with pride in his voice.

“It is not much, but it helps my mother. It is a pity I had to leave school. I had a lot of friends there. Sometimes I see them now coming home from school with their text books.”

He says he believes one day his father will come back home and then he will be able to go back to school.

“The money which the government gives us is not enough even for bread,” sighed Ayten Mirzoyeva, Ahmed’s mother. “I wish my son returned to school and had a happy childhood as all children [should].”

Dinara Akhundova, a small 14-year-old girl with a long black plait and brown eyes, also had to leave school to work. Her mother is a market trader. Dinara helps her to arrange goods on the counter and sometimes serves the customers. “Mother has too many things to do here, and she does not manage sometimes, that’s why I am here,” said Dinara with a smile.

“I don’t much regret leaving school,” she said, twirling the tip of her plait around forefinger. “I know how to write, to count and to read. I spent seven years at school, and that’s quite enough, I think.”

There is no accurate information on the number of children, like Ahmed and Dinara, working on the streets of Baku, but it is estimated to be several hundred.

The employment of minors is prohibited under Azerbaijani law, however the authorities do almost nothing to stop it happening. According to Anar Janmammadov, a legal expert for ABA CEELI, a law group run by the American Bar Association, no government agency shows any willingness to tackle the issue.

“In Soviet times this problem was looked after by various departments of the Communist Party,” said Janmammadov. “Now in the transitional period from the authoritarian Soviet regime to an independent republic, everything is very difficult.”

While the government provides poor families with a subsidy, it’s often not enough - and non-governmental organisations try to fill the gap. One such organisation is Ishiqli Ev (Bright House in Azeri), which started working in 2002.

“Children from poor families and those who don’t have parents have dinner here and we give them some warm clothes and shoes,” said Sudaba Shiralieva, the founder and head of Ishiqli Ev.

Shiralieva says that about 40 or 50 children attend her centre everyday and, as well as being fed, are taught reading, writing, drawing and football. The teachers are volunteers from another NGO, the Baku Volunteer’s Centre.

“The children hear from their neighbours that there is a place, where they can eat and learn as well,” said Shiralieva.

Aslan Hajiev, a thin ten-year-old boy in a tracksuit, comes to Ishiqli Ev nearly every day. His father died in the Nagorny Karabakh war when he was only four months old. Then he lived with his mother in the town of Sumgait.

“I don’t know where my mum is now,” said Aslan shyly, lowering his eyes. “I have not seen her for three years since she brought me to Baku.”

Aslan has never been to school and does not even have a home. He says he does not want to go to a children’s home, because other children say it is bad there. So he lives in the street; and spends his nights at Baku railway station, under a bridge or in doorways.

“I get enough money to survive by selling sunflower seeds or batteries in the streets,” said Aslan.” Once I met another boy, Ilkin, who sells chewing gum in the subway. He told me about Ishiqli Ev. Since then, I’ve come here a lot. I learned to read and to write here and also learned to play football.”

He says he has made new friends at Ishiqli Ev and that the tutors are very friendly to the children.

“The problem is that nearly no one helps us,” said Shuralieva. “Only UNICEF and the British embassy help Ishiqli Ev with equipment and supplies.

“A week ago, when the whole city was covered with snow, the homeless children were freezing with cold. Our volunteers found some of them rolled up into a ball like stray cats.

“We wrote letters to every ministry begging for help, but no one wants to hear us. People, if you have money or desire, please, help us!”

Tamara Grigoryeva is a correspondent with APA news agency in Baku.

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