Hope and a helping hand for Kabul's street children

Ten-year-old Khaled explains how his drawings chronicle his life.

The first image shows his father walking to work. "Look how the planes bombed and destroyed our house," he says, pointing to the second picture. In the third, Khaled and his brother work on the streets of Kabul obtaining passengers for taxis. The last picture is the most poignant. It shows a new house. "This house, I hope, represents my future," he says quietly.

Khaled is one of approximately 40,000 children in Kabul who shine shoes, sell plastic bags, collect scrap metal, or beg on the streets to earn as little as 12 cents a day to support their families. Twenty-three years of civil war have devastated millions of families across Afghanistan, forcing children as young as 6 to become breadwinners.

The number of children working the streets of Kabul has almost doubled in the past five years, and an influx of returning refugees means the numbers will likely increase.

Though working on Kabul's dusty, grimy streets may bring immediate relief to starving families, aid workers fear it will cost the children key opportunities – such as education – that could improve their long-term future.

Khaled is one of the fortunate ones.

Eight months ago, a social worker from Ashiana, an Afghan aid group, brought Khaled to a center that provides education and vocational training for more than 2,000 youngsters who once worked the streets. The children learn how to fix small electric appliances, to make paper flowers to sell to passersby, and to read and write. Teachers also instruct the children about personal hygiene and land-mine awareness.

"Most Afghans don't think about how difficult it is for these kids," says Mohammad Yousef, Ashiana's founder. "But if these kids grow up without education or love, they won't become good members of society."

Mr. Yousef established Ashiana six years ago, after he met a young shoe-shiner who told him that before he began working the streets, he was first in his class. The boy had to leave school when his father was killed. Yousef says he realized then that something had to be done.

Taliban authorities had Yousef arrested three times during their six years in power. But he managed to keep his centers open, and even created several home schools for girls, who were banned from studying or working under the Taliban's strict brand of Islam.

"Sometimes the kids tell me that they don't feel a part of the community, because when people see them on the streets they tell the kids that they are bad," Yousef says. "But we tell them that they should be proud of themselves because they are breadwinners."

Recognizing the need for these children to work, Yousef created a program that gives the kids flexibility – so that they can study part time and still work a few hours a day. The goal is to make the children worthwhile members of society by teaching them skills that will help them to advance to better jobs, so they don't have to beg.

At one of five Ashiana centers in Kabul, Ahmar Wassir listened closely as his teacher explains how to fix a small electrical fan.

Before coming to Ashiana two years ago, Ahmar was selling plastic bags on the street to pay for medicine for his sick father. Never having set foot in a classroom, he had little reason to be optimistic about the future.

"I wanted to be a doctor, but I was hopeless," Ahmar says.

Fourteen months later, he can read and write, and now dreams of becoming an engineer.

Activists at Ashiana say many of the children suffer from emotional trauma caused by years of conflict.

"For 23 years we have been in war, and all of these kids have been affected," says Ahmad Shah, who has been teaching art at Ashiana for six years. "They have a lot of psychological problems, and many have buried their memories."

Mr. Shah uses art as a form of therapy and encourages the children to draw pictures representing the past, present, and future. "One of the first things I do when I have a new group of students is show them my scars," he says, pointing to a healed bullet wound on his neck.

"I do this to show them that we have all been touched by war, but we need to move on and look to the future."

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