Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"One day, I met a boy from the refugee camp. He was a shoeshine boy. . ."

At least 60,000 street urchins roam the city of Kabul. Straight out of the pages of Oliver Twist, they are beggars, pickpockets, incense burners, shoeshine boys, porters, ragpickers, scrap-metal collectors and trinket hawkers. At first light, you see them carrying heavy jugs up the mountainsides to the growing slum settlements, to sell water for the equivalent of a handful of pennies per jug. At dusk, they're still working, racing through traffic at busy intersections, selling chewing gum, maps, matches and cigarettes.

"The main problem for these street children, these working children, it is like they are treated as though they are not human," says 40-year-old Mohammed Yousef, a devoted children's rights crusader. "If there are children who are stealing food, the police will only look at the clothing the children are wearing. The ones in rags, they will beat them."

Yousef is the manager of Aschiana, a unique, multifaceted initiative. It's an elementary school, an emergency shelter, an outreach program, the student-run Voice of Afghan Children newspaper, a vocational training centre, a hub for political advocacy and a sort of a bank run by the street kids themselves.

Every year, Aschiana's services reach as many as 10,000 street children, many of them orphans and runaways. Wander through Aschiana's complex in the heart of Kabul and you'll find children working in gardens, playing on a basketball court, or hard at work in literacy, photography, calligraphy and computer classes. There are sewing, embroidery and tailoring programs, karate classes, a traditional music program and a popular artists' workshop. . .

- from my latest essay in the series, in the Calgary Herald.


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