Kabul's Children Learn to Play Again

A cash-strapped project in the Afghan capital is giving thousands of street-working youngsters a safe place to relax and have fun.

Kabul's Children Learn to Play Again

A cash-strapped project in the Afghan capital is giving thousands of street-working youngsters a safe place to relax and have fun.

Armed with a green frog puppet, glitter paint and a couple of frisbees, Australian psychologist Sam Ginsberg is on a mission to bring hope and fun into the lives of thousands of street-working children who scrape a living in the Afghan capital.

Ginsberg is the latest specialist to devote his time and energy to Kabul’s Ashiana project: a series of drop-in centres which aim to provide a safe haven where such children can rest, play games and learn new skills that may help them escape the grinding poverty and often dangerous situations their low-paying jobs can lead them into.

Ashiana – the word means “nest” in the Dari language – was founded in 1995 by Mohammad Yousef with assistance from the Swiss non-governmental organisation Terre des Hommes.

There are currently more than 2000 boys and girls aged from six to 16 registered at five Ashiana centres in Kabul.

The street-working problem is a huge one. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, has identified 28,000 children who beg and work in Kabul’s streets.

Many of the children who are registered with Ashiana are their family’s main breadwinners, and while they are not homeless as such, all their waking hours are spent trying to make money in the streets. They do any work they can find, from selling water, cigarettes and newspapers to washing cars and hailing taxis for a commission of 500 Afghanis, less than two US cents.

Dressed in an old black dress with a white scarf wrapped around her head, 13-year-old Vida spends her day wandering around Kabul’s bazaars selling water for the equivalent of a dollar or two a day.

Even though she struggles to make enough money to survive, the harsh reality of her life on Kabul’s streets has not destroyed her ambition. “I want to be famous, and I’d like to be a doctor one day,” she told IWPR.

It is just these kinds of dreams that people such as Ginsberg, who works for Australian Volunteers International, want to encourage in the Ashiana children.

“An entire generation of Afghan children has known nothing but war. They are suffering from various traumas that growing up in a battle zone inflicts on a child,” he said. “What I see in these kids is fear and distrust of authority. It’s a post-Taleban mentality.”

The process of healing the scars of war and encouraging the children to let go of their fear, pain and despair is an arduous one.

Ginsberg specialises in trauma debriefing. While he tailors his activities to the needs of those he is trying to help, the goal is the same in each case: to help the children move forward into the future with a renewed sense of self-esteem and optimism.

Play is an essential part of Ginsberg’s approach. During their few hours at the centre, usually in the mornings before they start work, he encourages the Ashiana children to take part in games such as volleyball or tossing a Frisbee to help them to relax and enjoy the moment.

“Children learn through play, and this allows them to let go of their fear and anger,” said Ginsberg, who uses team sports to forge an understanding of cooperation and fair play. Physical activity also causes the body to produce what the psychologist calls “happy hormones,” or endorphins, which help foster a sense of relaxed well-being.

“The body pushes trauma down and keeps on functioning. The trick is to let go of the pain,” he said. For the street-working children, such games and playing are something that they have completely missed out on.

The teaching of vocational skills is an integral part of Ashiana’s programme, and the children can take part in workshops specialising in painting, electrical repair, calligraphy, carpentry and flower making. The electronics classes are very popular, especially with the older boys.

“It’s giving me the chance to become something else,” said 16-year-old Abdul Seeyer. “I was selling cigarettes on the streets before and it was dangerous, because a lot of people in that business also sell other kinds of drugs, and they wanted me to push them as well.”

He now sells newspapers supplied by Ashiana and dreams of having his own electronic repair shop one day.

The workers at the centres do what they can, but they are hampered by a severe lack of funding. The influx of foreign aid agencies into Afghanistan has resulted in skyrocketing rents and prices in the capital, and Aschiana is now struggling to survive.

Project director Mohammad Yusouf explained that with a budget of just four US dollars per child per month, it is difficult to provide basics such as food on a daily basis.

However, the work goes on, and the volunteers are highly committed. “The vast majority of these children here are good kids, and they deserve the best we can give them,” said Ginsberg.

Mirwais Masood is a freelance journalist in Kabul

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