Afghan Street Children Beg for Change

Published on ZNet, by Kathy Kelly, Dec 30, 2013 – (also on Dissident Voice).

Kabul, Afghanistan is “home” to hundreds of thousands of children who have no home. Many of them live in squalid refugee camps with families that have been displaced by violence and war. Bereft of any income in a city already burdened by high rates of unemployment, families struggle to survive without adequate shelter, clothing, food or fuel. Winter is especially hard for refugee families. Survival sometimes means sending their children to work on the streets, as vendors, where they often become vulnerable to well organized gangs that lure them into drug and other criminal rings.  

Last year, the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV), a group of young Afghans who host me and other internationals when we visit their home in Kabul, began a program to help street children enroll in schools. They befriend small groups of children, get to know the children’s families and circumstances, and then reach agreements with the families that if the children are allowed to attend school and reduce their working hours on the streets, the APVs will compensate the families, supplying them with oil and rice. Next, the APVs buy warm clothes for each child and invite them to attend regular classes at the APV home to learn the alphabet and math.

Yesterday, Abdulhai and Hakim met a young boy, Safar, age 13, who was working as a boot polisher on a street near the APV home. Abdulhai asked to shake Safar’s hand, but the child refused. Understandably, Safar may have feared Abdulhai. But when Abdulhai and Hakim told Safar there were foreigners at the APV office who were keen to help, he followed them into our yard.

Sitting next to me, indoors, Safar continued shaking from the cold. We noticed that he had an angry red welt across his right cheek. Safar said that the previous day he had tried to warm his hands over an outdoor bar-b-que grill, and the cook hit him across the face with a red hot skewer to shoo him away. Safar clutched a half-filled small plastic Coca-Cola bottle in his hands. Asked why he was drinking cold soda on such a cold day, he said that he had a headache.

He was wearing a hoodie, light pants, and plastic slippers. He had no socks or gloves– hardly adequate attire for working outside in the bitter cold all day. On a “good” day, Safar can earn 150 Afghanis, a sum that amounts to $3.00 and could purchase enough bread for a family of seven and perhaps have some left over to purchase clothes.

Abdulhai and Hakim asked Safar to come back the next day with some of his friends. One hour later, he arrived with five friends, two Pashto boys and three Tajiks, ranging in age from 13 to 5. The children promised to return the next day with more youngsters.

And so this morning seven street children filed into the APV home. None of them wore socks and all were shivering. Their eyes were gleaming as they nodded their heads, assuring us that they want to join APV’s street kids program.

Here in Kabul, a city relatively better off than most places in Afghanistan, we have electricity every other day. When the pipes freeze and there’s no electricity, we have no water. Imagine the hardships endured by people living with far less. Even in the United States, thousands of children’s basic needs aren’t met. The New York Times recently reported that there are 22,000 homeless children living in New York City .

Thinking of how the U.S. has used its resources here in Afghanistan, where more than a trillion has been spent on maintaining war and occupation, I feel deep shame. In 2014, the U.S. will spend 2.1 million dollars for every U.S. soldier stationed in Afghanistan. Convoys travel constantly between US military bases, transporting large amounts of fuel, food and clean water – luxury items to people living in refugee camps along their routes – often paying transportation tolls to corrupt officials, some of whom are known to head up criminal gangs.

While the U.S. lacks funds to guarantee basic human rights for hundreds of thousands of U.S. children, and while U.S. wars displace and destroy families in Afghanistan, the U.S. consistently meets the needs of weapon makers and war profiteers … //

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