Afghan child workers find hope in classroom

For a Kabul teen, the Taliban's fall has meant slow change: new work, and a return to study.

There were times last fall, as American bombs fell onto a Taliban antiaircraft battery on the hill above his house, that Karim Wali Khan, a youth working in the capital's streets, thought only of his impending death.

Profiled by the Monitor last September, he spent the better part of the American bombing campaign – from Oct. 7 until the fall of the Taliban in mid-November – huddled with his three brothers and mother and father in the basement of a neighbor's house.

One bomb, which hit its intended target – a Taliban gunner's post 100 yards away – sprayed bomb fragments into Karim's front yard.

But today, Karim, still shy and withdrawn but a bit taller at age 14, says he is much better off now that the Taliban have left. He has a better job on the streets, rounding up passengers for taxi drivers, instead of begging for alms and gathering up scrap metal and wood. And he remembers the joy he felt when the Taliban fled, the bombing stopped, and the Northern Alliance entered the city of Kabul.

"Everyone was happy when they entered the city," says Karim, his voice hoarse from day after day of shouting for customers at the taxi stand. "I had some old paper flowers on the wall of our house, and I took them outside and put them on all their tanks and trucks."

Even with the help of a handful of aid groups, Kabul's street children are the most vulnerable members of a society beset by two decades of war. Some have become soldiers themselves, recruited as young as 10; others, like Karim, have helped support their family, digging through the detritus of a destroyed city, looking for something of value to sell. All face malnutrition, poverty, and the lack of safe drinking water and a proper education.

But with the fall of the Taliban, who preferred Islamic charities and actively discouraged foreign aid groups from working in Afghanistan, the lives of Kabul's poorest children could see some noticeable improvement. Billions of dollars of aid money will begin the long process of rebuilding Afghanistan, as well as feeding impoverished Afghans. And aid groups are much freer today to carry out their work without Taliban harassment.

"The Nest"

In the classrooms of Aschiana, or "The Nest" – an Afghan-run but foreign-funded aid group in Kabul – hundreds of children like Karim learn to read and write, how to identify and avoid landmines, and how to maintain proper hygiene in their homes. Other attendance incentives include breakfast – often the only square meal these children receive all day – and classes in painting and the making of traditional crafts.

The painting classes are not only vocational, says Aschiana director Engineer Yusuf, although some children have set up businesses painting cars and billboards. Painting serves as a form of therapy for children who have seen more than their share of war and loss.

Grief and art

"These children who have lost relatives, when they are alone at home, they are left only with thoughts of grief," says Mr. Yusuf. "But when they are painting, they are thinking of other things. It's a treatment, so they can express and resolve the trauma of all these years of war."

When Karim heard that thousands of Americans were killed in New York, a city he knew little about, he knew that war would be coming soon to his family. Other friends in the destitute Qal-e Ab Chakhan neighborhood hurriedly packed their belongings and fled to villages outside Kabul, but Karim's family was too poor to leave.

So they spent the next three months in the basement of a friend's house, and waited for the bombs to fall.

"There was nothing to do but wait for death," says Karim, without emotion. "We were not near a military installation, but there was a TV tower on the top of our hill, and on the first night of bombing, they attacked that hill. We didn't have glass windows, we just had plastic sheeting, but we could hear the windows of our neighbor's house shattering."

During this time, Karim's studies halted. He didn't have any books to read, any paper to draw on. He says he even forgot to change his clothes.

No use for paper

"We thought we would be completely destroyed, so there was no need for pen and paper, or for clothes," he says. "Every night, we tied a cloth over our noses and mouths. They said that nuclear bombs will be dropped on Kabul, so we were afraid of the poison. Even now, sometimes when I dream, I hear the sound of the B-52s."

In Karim's class, most of the boys and girls paint architectural monuments, holding a photograph or postcard in one hand, and a paintbrush in another. But even here, there is no escaping the ravages of war. Most monuments, from the blue-domed shrine of Hazrat Ali, one of the prophet Muhammad's closest companions, in Mazar-e Sharif to the leaning minarets of Ghazni are shot full of bulletholes, pocked by 23 years of war.

A more striking change is the sudden resurgence of portrait painting, something forbidden under the Taliban's strict injunction against "graven images" and idolatry. Up on the walls, there are several renditions of the famous green-eyed "Afghan girl" on the cover of National Geographic magazine.

Painting faces

"There are lots of changes now," says Karim. "During Taliban times, we couldn't even wear pants, we had to wear salwar kameez [a traditional baggy Afghan outfit]. And we couldn't draw pictures of human beings. Now we can do that easily."

Yet there is much about Karim's life that hasn't changed. His father is still too old to work; his mother still washes clothes for a living in other people's homes. His older brother still shines shoes, and his younger brothers still stay at home, too young and too poor to get an education.

Karim's new job of shouting at a taxi stand earns more money: nearly 40,000 Afghanis ($8.50) a day, compared with 15,000 per day picking through trash. But his throat is perpetually raw, and other more aggressive boys always seem to get more customers.

But every day, Karim looks forward to his morning classes with an enthusiasm that might surprise children in, say, America. "Mostly, I enjoy painting, but now I can read and write, and I can read the Holy Koran," he says. "I'll stay here until they tell me to go."

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