Street Kids Dream of an Education

For many of Afghanistan's poorest children, school is a luxury they can ill afford.

Street Kids Dream of an Education

For many of Afghanistan's poorest children, school is a luxury they can ill afford.

All Afghanistan's many impoverished war widows are used to making difficult choices about their children's future but for most the hardest is deciding whether to send them to school or to work.

Like so many others in her position, Fouzia, who lost her husband seven years ago, depends on her kids' meagre income to stave off destitution and hunger. Her two sons, 12 and 9, work in a bakery and a bicycle repair shop respectively.

"I managed on what was left by my husband for some time but now I depend on my sons, who bring in 25,000 afghanis (about 70 US cents) a day," said Fouzia, who lives in the Karte Naw district of Kabul.

Her children's pay together with the money she makes working for a raisin-processing factory allows them to just about get by. While she would love to send her kids to school, it's not something she can even begin to contemplate at the moment.

"If they went off to school who will support the family? My money is only enough to pay the rent. I need the kids' money for food, clothes and medicine," she said.

Twelve-year-old Soor Gul spends his days on the streets with a can of burning dried rue, a kind of herb. For 500-1000 afghanis (one to two US cents), he will blow the smoke over passers-by who believe that it will protect them from the "evil eye".

School is out of the question for him too. "My father was martyred in the war and I have two sisters and a mother who need caring for," he said. " If I work I can earn 10,000-15,000 afghanis a day to support them."

There's little protection for the capital's estimated 60,000 child workers. As a result, they are often exploited, some falling under the sway of criminals who, typically, organise them into begging teams across the city.

For some of the street children who have recently returned from refugee camps and city streets in Pakistan, life in Kabul is something of a relief, as child exploitation across the border is more pervasive and brutal.

"Afghan children live very terrible lives in Pakistan," said Gul Ahmad, a young returnee. "Most of them are labouring, working in factories or in hotels, and at night are molested or harassed. Some have even fallen victim to kidnappers."

Most people in Kabul take an unsympathetic view of the street kids, often regarding them as little more than common thieves. A passing government official, who introduced himself as Mohammad Ashraf, interrupted an interview with one boy to rail against the city's children.

"Most of the people in the cinema are kids - where did they find the money?" he complained. "They probably stole from their homes and picked people's pockets. They are getting money from begging or stealing with their parents' knowledge."

To get an accurate picture of the problems facing Kabul's youngsters, two charities, the French Terre des Hommes and the Afghan NGO Ashiana, in cooperation with the government, are surveying around 1,000 street children.

A government official involved in the project, Mohammad Ali Watan Yar, who heads up the administration's statistics department, said, " We ask them about their lives and then investigate their family condition. After this we may be able to help some families to enable their kids to be sent to school or vocational centres for training."

Ashiana is one of the few organisations in the city catering for the specific needs of the street children. Over two thousand attend its network of drop-in centres and home-based girls schools. The charity provides courses in basic numeracy and literacy, together with training in things like woodwork, calligraphy, electronics and tailoring.

One of the main challenges facing Ashiana is keeping children on their programmes, as many have to continue working to support their families. "Our objective is to keep the kids involved, " said the Ahmad Shah, a health education instructor. "If we don't give them time to earn money, they will lose their source of income and drop out."

For most of Kabul's street kids, the prospect of school and a trade is too distant a dream to waste much time dwelling on. Most have simpler, more practical ambitions.

"My elder brother and I work and support our family. My brother washes cars and I sell cigarettes. Sometimes I make 10,000 or 5,000 afghanis a day," said Said Anwar, who's father lost both his legs in the war. "But one day, if I earn enough, I will buy myself a wheelbarrow and will be able to sell even more cigarettes."

Fahim Samsoor is a pseudonym for a Kabul-based journalist.

Pakistan, Afghanistan
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