Canadian medics treat Afghan street kids with checkups and candies
Doug Schmidt, CanWest News Service
Published: Monday, January 15, 2007
KANDAHAR CITY, Afghanistan — The curtain outside the makeshift clinic parts and a police officer gruffly ushers Ali Mohammad in to meet the doctor.
Ali is filthy in his layers of tattered clothes, but he sports a huge grin. This beats his usual daily grind, sifting through Kandahar’s garbage for anything of remote value.
"I have a headache. I’m cold and have cracks in my feet," the 12-year-old tells the doctor.
"I have a little problem in my chest," Ali later tells a reporter as he cheerily clutches a scrawled list and heads over to a nearby table to collect his medicines under the gaze of rifle-toting Canadian soldiers.
Popping a soothing medicated lemon drop into his mouth, Ali then goes to fetch his younger and even grubbier-looking brother for his checkup. Perowz, 5, has more health issues and is handed a small stack of boxes of medication, several with warning labels in English: "Keep out of the reach of children."
From the appearance of their bare, leathery, black feet, some of the kids gathered here to see medical professionals for the first time appear to have never owned footwear.
Meet the recyclers of Kandahar City, a rag-tag collection of orphaned, displaced, illiterate or otherwise neglected children who survive in the streets.
In a dirt-poor country, they are among the dirtiest and the poorest.
It’s winter and the temperatures can get bitterly cold but none of these kids wears socks or boots, and a few don’t even have sandals.
Ali works seven days a week, from dawn to dusk. He’s paid up to 30 afghanis, or just over 70 cents, per day. With that, he could buy six loaves of bread. Two people can live on 30 afghanis a day, but it would be a diet restricted to bread and chai, the local tea, and not much extra for sugar.
"Before this, I don’t know what they did," said Haji Faizul Haq Mushkani, a local entrepreneur who decided a year ago to do something for Kandahar’s roaming street kids. "These are poor people’s kids, some have parents — others, their fathers died or left."
Working with local businesses, Faizul Haq employs more than 120 city children to hit the streets and collect discarded plastic, tin and other items then sold to recyclers.
On this day, he’s stuffed almost two dozen children into a pickup truck and brought them to the downtown police/fire station where three doctors and a dentist hired by Canada’s Kandahar-based provincial reconstruction team will give them a checkup. The reconstruction team regularly hosts medical outreach clinics, but this one is special, targeting street kids, every one of whom, at least in this group, appears to suffer from one or more of a myriad of gastro-intestinal, respiratory and skin diseases.
"This is not by any means a cure for the problem here, but at least it gives them temporary relief for their ailments," said Dr. Mark Dacambra, medical officer at the reconstruction team’s home base at Camp Nathan Smith.
"And a certain percentage of things we do fix — for example, throat and ear infections."
This day’s clinic will cost Canadians about $3,200. Not included in that are the candies and small gifts handed out by the soldiers providing security, goodies raided from Christmas care packages from their families back home.
Ali and Perowz are luckier than most here. Living with other refugees and nomads in the outskirts of the sprawling city, they and their four siblings have both parents.
Yes, it’s sometimes cold in the streets, said Ali, "but it’s cold at home, too, because we live in tents."
Kids forced to work may be an abhorrent concept to most in the Western world, but in today’s Afghanistan it means survival.
"As much as we bemoan child labour, that doesn’t apply here — they either collect recyclables or starve," says Capt. Neil Stocker, a CIMIC (Civil Military Co-operation) officer with the PRT.
"If I didn’t give them work, they’d be stealing in the street or becoming beggars, bad people," said Faizul Haq.
At the end of the clinic, the kids jump back onto the pickup and the soldiers back into their armoured vehicles to return to their respective temporary homes.