Street children on the rise in Kabul

Kabul, November 15, 2006 (VOA) - After decades of conflict, street children have become a major problem for Afghanistan. Most will never have the opportunity to live a normal life. But Jeff Swicord reports from Kabul on one program that is working to change the odds.

Take a walk through the crowded markets of Kabul and you can see them everywhere: young school age boys and girls selling plastic bags, bottled water, and other merchandise. Street children, like 12 year-old Madena -- originally from the northern city of Mazar Shariff. "My father was killed in the war and now I am working here," she says.

According to United Nations statistics, more than 60,000 children now work in the streets of Kabul to survive. Mohammad Yousef is director of Aschiana, or "the nest," an organization dedicated to improving the lives of street children. He says street children are just one more tragedy bestowed on Afghan society after almost 40 years of war.

"Most of the children lost their parents during the war and must work on the street to survive. And others, there is just nobody in their family responsible for their education, their clothes and the other necessities of life. So, they are obliged to come to the streets and do work."

Mohammad Yousef was a radio journalist during the war. During a visit to Kabul, he met a young boy shining shoes on the street. That chance meeting gave Mohammad an idea that would change the lives of thousands of street children in Kabul.

"I realized that there were so many children with the potential to receive a good education. But because of the war in our country, they will not get a good education and they will become a problem for society in the future. They will have anger in their heart toward society. So I thought we should have a center like this one for those children who have the ability to be educated."

Since 1994 Aschiana has provided support, food, and educational opportunities to almost 10,000 children in the Kabul area. The children come in shifts during the day to maximize their numbers. The goal is to build up their academic skills so they can integrate back into regular schooling. When we visited, they were taking part in a music class.

"We have different kinds of programs for them here. We have the education program. We have the health program. And, we have sponsorship programs and programs for music and theater."

Many have suffered physical violence, sexual abuse, and psychological trauma from the war. The arts program has played a big part in their therapy.

The children have developed a reputation for their work. And many have sold paintings to private individuals, which helps to improve the image of street children within the community."

"In our community, the children that are working on the streets have a bad reputation. The stereotype is that they are robbers and thieves, not good people. We want to bring these children into the community and show people that they are just as capable as more privileged children."

Aschiana has faced funding shortages several times in its history. And Mohammad was jailed during the Taleban years for schooling girls.

But each month, several hundred children enter normal schools with the skills to develop and grow like regular children. It's a small victory that makes all the difficulties worthwhile. A victory in a battle the staff of Aschiana are willing to fight -- one child at a time.