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Poverty forces Kabul parents to send kids to orphanages

Afghan parents are still so poor that many temporarily give up their children to orphanages, where they receive food, clothes, and schooling.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2002



KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Rashid is crying softly at the gate of the orphanage, his tears dropping onto his dusty brown salwar kameez outfit. Beside him, his grandmother tries to reassure him.

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"Please don't cry, little one," she says, clutching a metal cane. A rocket attack by anti-Taliban forces on Kabul four years ago left her without a left leg and without the full use of her left hand. She is her family's sole breadwinner, earning about 60 cents a day from begging.

"I'll be back soon," she says to Rashid, "and I'll take you home to your mother. But right now, I can't. I have to go out and beg for our food."

Rashid is one of more than 600 children enrolled at the Alauddin orphanage, although he is not an orphan in the traditional sense. He has a mother, a grandmother, two brothers, two sisters, and an uncle who helps any way he can.

But like hundreds of other families in Kabul, and perhaps thousands around the country, Rashid's family can no longer afford to feed, clothe, or send their child to school. So three months ago, they brought Rashid to this orphanage in the ruined Western sector of Kabul, just to put a roof over his head and food in his stomach.

It's a cruel irony for Afghan families: At the very time when life should be improving, when 23 years of war have ended, when relief agencies are flooding in and refugees are returning by the hundreds of thousands, Afghanistan's traditional coping mechanisms are close to breaking down. Normally, Afghan families look after their own, shuttling children from poorer relatives to those who can afford better homes and food. But in today's Afghanistan, nearly every family is under tremendous economic distress and unable to provide for more than their own immediate family.

At Kabul's two main orphanages, Alauddin and Tahia Maskan, the number of children enrolled has increased almost 80 percent since last January, from 700 to over 1,200 children. Almost half of these come from families who have at least one parent, but who can't support their children.

"Nobody would willingly separate from their children," says Mohammad Ghaus Bashiri, deputy minister of labor and social affairs in the Afghan transitional government in Kabul. "They are forced to do this because of economic reasons."

Afghan officials say that international donor nations and private aid agencies have promised $3 million dollars to meet the growing needs of Afghan children, but little of this money has actually arrived.

"So far the biggest support we received was from the fire brigade of New York, the heroes of the World Trade Center," says Al-Haj Abdul Sameem, director of the Alauddin and Tahia Maskan orphanages. "They brought tons of toys for the children, and they are still using them. But unfortunately a lot of agencies which promised us aid haven't done anything." The orphanages rely on agencies such as UNICEF, Save the Children, and the London-based Children in Crisis for funding and donations.

"We thank the US for helping us against the war on terrorism," says Mr. Sameem, "but we want them now to help us in our war on ignorance and poverty. That's more important to us than a war on terror."

For now, this war on ignorance is fought in dozens of cramped classrooms in the orphanages, where boys and girls study Persian language, arithmetic, and some basic Islamic lessons.

In Ms. Shahima's arithmetic class, for instance, the boys have a very real-life lesson in division. There are 30 boys, but only 15 seats, so two boys must share each. There are only 10 pencils, so three boys must take turns scribbling notes from the chalkboard.

Most of the children at Alauddin have parents nearby, who they visit two days a week.

Sameem, a bright 9-year-old from the Panjshir valley, says his mother brought him to Alauddin two months ago when she could no longer care for him. His father was killed three years ago fighting against the Taliban, leaving Sameem's mother to scratch together a living by baking bread.

"I like it here," he says. "I like the lessons, the teachers, the other children. And from the time that I've been here, I've received five sets of clothes and four pairs of shoes."

Jaihon, a lanky 12-year-old from Badakhshan Province, takes a bus across town once a week to see his mother and four brothers and sisters. An uncle, who works as a civil servant for the interior department of the Afghan interim government, also helps support the family.

"I feel lucky to be here," says Jaihon, fingering a notebook full of lessons. "I can study my lessons, and I receive food and clothes here. I miss my family, but it's better if I stay here."

Mohammad Yasin Safar, project manager for the Children in Crisis aid agency, says that until more funds arrive, orphanages such as Alauddin will have no choice but to turn away the dozens of young boys who arrive every morning begging to be admitted.

"The economic problems of Afghans are so great that poor families are very keen to have their children go to an orphanage, just so they can receive aid," says Mr. Safar. "Right now, we're trying to reunify families and stop new admissions...."

But not all is bleak at Alauddin. Out in the orphanage's parched dusty playground, a platoon of British peacekeepers hammer away at a jungle gym.

"I think they are Italians," guesses one boy. He grins. "I think they have come here to Afghanistan just to build this for us."

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