By Roxana Saberi
BBC News, Tajikistan
Committee members Qarchibeko and Jemayev talk to Olim
On most afternoons, Ma’ruf Jemayev swaps his school tie and sweater for second-hand clothes, and his classroom dialect for the lingo of the streets of Dushanbe.
His goal is to convince the street children of Tajikistan to pursue a better way of life by reaching out to them as one of their own.
"I want street kids to see that I know what it’s like to be one of them," says the 16-year-old, who used to wash cars to earn some cash.
"I tell them they can choose a better way of life by getting off the streets."
Jemayev belongs to Tajikistan’s Republic Centre of Information and Orientation of Youth, a UN-backed committee of young people dedicated to taking kids off the streets of Dushanbe.
"If our young people are uneducated, tomorrow our country will ask them for help, and they won’t be able to give it. Then our country will not develop
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which used to send economic aid to this former Soviet Republic, Tajikistan suffered a devastating civil war.
While the war ended nine years ago, children in this central Asian country continue to battle against poverty.
The United Nations says 64% of the population lives on less than $2.15 (£1) a day.
Many Tajik children drop out of school to work and end up falling into drugs, crime or prostitution.
Back to school
Members of the youth committee reach out to these children by telling them they do not have to work and live on the streets, and that going back to school is the key to a better future.
Their efforts seem to be working.
Many street children have left their jobs washing cars or peddling goods in the bazaar and have gone back to school.
Several have joined the youth committee, where they receive $20 a month and learn about computers, languages and leadership skills.
The committee has expanded from 20 children two years ago to around 60 today, organiser Sukhrob Kurbonov says.
"Street kids have their own rules and don’t allow just anyone close to them," he says.
"Because these kids we work with were from that group, they can speak to them more easily and get information from them. We wanted to know why these kids start stealing and begging and what problems they face."
Committee members say a lot of street children they meet left home either to get away from domestic violence or to make money.
"The main problem of these street kids, who steal, loiter and wash cars, is economic," says 16-year-old Firdows Qarchibeko.
"They think only of today and not tomorrow. They just wash cars and don’t improve their lives."
Igor Bosc, deputy resident representative at the United Nations Development Programme in Dushanbe, says life used to be better for many Tajik young people.
"The Ministry of Education has nothing close to the sort of budget that the Ministry of Education had in Soviet times," he said.
Youngsters are encouraged to pursue an education
"That is of course a pity, and it’s the children who suffer."
"They drop out of school, or they work in parallel," Bosc said. "In rural areas they’re often doing a lot of the agricultural work, and they’re working in the cotton fields."
So members of the youth group, like Jemayev and Qarchibeko, spend most evenings trying to get street children indoors.
One Friday afternoon, they find 16-year-old Olim washing cars near the city bazaar.
"I wash five or six cars a day," says Olim, who did not want to give his last name.
"I come from a family of five kids. My father works in Russia, and my mom stays at home. My four brothers and I wash cars to make money."
Olim tells Jemayev and Qarchibeko he earns the equivalent of $3 per car.
After their talk, Qarchibeko says he believes he has convinced Olim to join the youth committee.
"I told him if you like, you can join the committee, and you can study again, and he said he would like that," Qarchibeko says.
Jemayev believes the committee’s work is important for the future of Tajikistan.
"If our young people are uneducated, tom
orrow our country will ask them for help, and they won’t be able to give it," he says. "Then our country will not develop."