A film puts faces on unseen street children

On the edge of Istiklal, home to many of Istanbul's hippest clubs, a teenage boy named Hassan Dogan Yildiz sways and stumbles as though standing on a boat at sea.

He lifts a blackened hand and holds a cloth to his nose and mouth, as though to keep warm. But the cloth is soaked with glue, and as the piercing smell rises, a shopkeeper hastily offers a free pastry to make him go away.

There isn't much that keeps Hassan - or some 15,000 other children living on the streets - from capsizing completely. And it is having watched children get pulled under that spurred Umit Cin Guven to make "Children of Secret," a haunting portrayal of kids surviving on a diet of drugs, donations - and theft.

The film, which has won several Turkish awards, was Mr. Guven's way of trying to expose a dark underside of Turkish society. A largely con- servative Muslim nation run by a central government seen as the defender of its citizens' interests, Turkey is not accustomed to acknowledging that so many young people may be struggling to survive on their own. And experts say the country's economic crisis, which many Turks suspect will only worsen in any war against Iraq, is increasing the number of children who leave home and end up in places like the one Hassan lives in: the dark, dank lobby of an abandoned building.

"My aim was to put this on the agenda," Guven says over a glass of tea on an Istiklal side street. "There has never been an official recognition of this problem. Our idea was to show the government that something should be done for these kids, to wake up the public, to make people do something. This is not only the government problem, it's the whole system's problem."

Spurred on by personal experience

Guven, a boyish-looking Turk in his late 20s, was headed home on a cold February day a few years ago when he saw a boy sleeping in a phone booth. "I felt sorry for him because it was very cold," Guven recalls, dark brown eyes tightening at the memory. The following day, he learned that the boy in the booth had frozen to death overnight.

"I felt terrible. I can't even find the words to describe what I felt," he says. "Maybe giving this kid a blanket would have prevented him from dying. People in the neighborhood were so unemotional about it.... And I realized that something should be done for [other kids like him]."

The resulting film explores the fragile lives of street children - as well, often, of their families - through the story of a 10-year-old boy named Cemil, who runs away from home because of an abusive stepfather. He is taken in by other street children, who start trying to raise money to send him home. Meanwhile, his mother, who comes to Istanbul to look for him, faces her own struggles as she is pursued by her former brothers-in-law, who feel her divorce hurt the family honor.

Picking up on daily rhythms

Guven started his research for the film by spending time in places where streets kids hang out, trying to work his way into their world. For months, they simply avoided this odd guy who was following them around, obviously too clean and coherent to be one of them.

Playing anthropologist, Guven noticed their patterns: They had specific days designated for bathing or washing their clothes, a loose code of ethics to help one another out, and a regular cycle: sleep by day, get high and beg for cash - or steal - at night.

But perhaps Guven's most important discovery was the ultimate interpreter: a former street kid who managed to turn his life around.

Ersin Salah Altinok ran away when he was 9 years old, and spent the next 23 years on the streets.

Today, he looks a decade older than he is, and bears ear-to-ear scars from a knife fight that came close to killing him. In addition to serving as a consultant on the film, Mr. Altinok works for Hope for Children, a private organization aimed at giving shelter and rehabilitation services to street children.

"At first, I didn't think it would be a good idea at all, to aid in making this film," he says. "I really believed that no one had ever cared about us and that a filmmaker would only come along and show our bad side."

Some government assistance

According to Altinok, there was never a time when surviving on the streets was easy.

As children, Altinok and his comrades stole flowers from cemeteries and sold them to pay for food and drugs.

But since he was a teenager, he says, the number of street children, and the prevalence of drug use among them, have burgeoned, driving more of them to crime. Run-ins with the police are common, and teenagers on the street say they're often beaten by local cops.

In the past five years, Turkish government agencies have launched programs aimed at helping street children. Some get assistance in returning to their families, while others are given shelter and access to remedial education. Officials at the child-protection center in Istanbul say they have worked with 3,000 children in some capacity.

The majority of the children on the street are of Kurdish descent, Altinok says, and like him, come from the poorer corners of southeastern Turkey. Many come from large rural families, who sometimes push a troublesome child to seek work in the big city.

The children who can be seen working the intersections of Turkish cities shining shoes and selling tissues are usually better off: Many are younger and dutifully bring their earnings back to their families.

But by the time they reach their teen years, many end up getting used to the harsh and lawless side of street life and fall into drug abuse.

"Whether you sniff or take pills, you're in space and out of control, and it causes you to misunderstand people. I've seen friends killed in fights because of that, and in one year, we lost six people," Altinok says. "I'm not proud of this kind of life. I only talk about it so the families won't let their kids go out on the street."

But many do, and Altinok admits that even he was not receptive to his brother's attempts to bring him home.

It can be equally difficult to understand what brought Hassan here.

Unanswered questions

Altinok, who knows Hassan and the other boys in the neighborhood, stops him on a chilly night and asks him about the raw scabs across his lips and face.

There was some argument, Hassan says, and another kid took a piece of plastic out of the fire and threw it at him.

"Will it be OK?" Hassan asks, emitting a puff of vile chemical air. His eyes on a vacant trip, his walk a hesitating stumble, he sits down on a bench to respond to questions he says he cannot answer.

How long has he been on the streets? "I don't even know what I had for breakfast," he slurs. He is the fifth in a family of nine, but he will not say where they are. "I don't think they will find me," he says. "It was my choice to live on the streets." What does he want? "I want nothing," he says.

Does his family know he's here? "Don't ask me about my family!" he explodes, and charges off into the numbing night.

Here, as in his film, Guven warns, there are not many happy endings.

"The end of a street kid is jail or death," he says. "It's rare to find one who has reached the age of 30."

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