Civil society and government agencies in Morocco are trying to take children off the streets, but resources are limited.
Text and photos by Sarah Touahri for Magharebia in Rabat – 02/02/07
Homeless children comb the main thoroughfares of Rabat and even sleep on the ground.
In the backstreets of Rabat, children comb the streets and turn up at mosques and bakeries looking for charitable souls. Mohcine Zalafe, 10, is one of them. Over the past year he has become used to approaching passers-by next to the bus station in Rabat, looking sickly and pale-faced, and dressed in filthy clothes. "I can collect between 80 and 120 Dirhams a day," he says proudly.
"The older you get, the less people want to give you money," says his friend, 16-year-old Samir Bouchtaoui.
The two boys are hardly ever separated. Mohcine’s mission is to collect as much money as possible and Samir undertakes to "protect" him from the other street children.
Up to now, there have been no precise statistics regarding the phenomenon of street children. In Casablanca, there are thought to be between 5,000 and 7,000 street children. In Morocco, there are around 25,000 according to the associations.
"It’s difficult to get a clear picture of this phenomenon. Most of the children spend their time moving from place to place and from town to town, fleeing from the police, attackers and the eyes of society," says Omar Saadoun, street educator for 12 years with the Bayti association.
Sociologist Ahmed Chaabouni explains that the rupture of the family unit is at the heart of the street children phenomenon: the death of the father or mother, divorce, remarriage, poverty, irresponsible parenting. "There are many children who say they have run away because of the brutality of family members. The streets present an irresistible temptation for these young fugitives."
According to Claude Groshamp, general superintendent of the Moroccan Association for the Protection of Children in Danger (ADIM), civil society’s efforts remain limited in this field, despite major action taken by various associations. Curing addictions, reintegrating the children and returning them to education are the principal areas of action, despite the meagre funds available.
Groshamp says he tries to make contact with the children, to understand them and to give them guidance. "I give them food. I talk to them like an older brother, and I try not to make them feel they’re being blamed."
Many other associations try to brighten up the daily existence of these needy children.
In El Youssoufia, a working-class district of Rabat, the Shemsy association takes in several of these children in need; the centre has been open for decades. "To offer a calm place for child victims of delinquency to stay is one of the association’s priorities," explains Chairman Thourya Bouabid.
At the association’s headquarters, educators try to get the children reintegrated into school to rescue them from the grasp of vice. Those who are beyond school-leaving age receive professional training.
"An educator in an open setting is permanently out on the streets listening to children and talking them round. He is there not to judge them but to understand them. The parents are sometimes an obstacle to children being integrated, wanting their offspring to continue begging at any cost. The educators’ work is very difficult. On the ground, they must give their all to convince the children and those close to them of the benefits of children reintegrating," Bouabid says.
In the centre’s Arabic class, children listen to teacher, Mohamed Kanbaou. But some of them are distracted, and do not seem to pay much attention. Kanbaou admits that he encounters a lot of difficulties with these children, who require a different approach from the other pupils.
"The economic and social situations of these children cause us enormous difficulties. They lack concentration. Some even stop coming here. Before teaching them, we prepare them so that they can regain their self-confidence. But we must always keep a close eye on them," Kanbaou explains.
Krimou proved to be gifted in improvisational performances
In the photo laboratory, children are learning to develop and print photographs which they took themselves with the help of their teacher. For many, it’s their favourite activity. However, the place where all the children like to "take refuge" is undoubtedly the drama studio. That is where they learn to express themselves freely, to reveal their pain, suffering and also their hopes, all without fear.
From watching "halquas" (street performances), Krimou, one of the students, has proved to be gifted in improvising these shows. Before coming to the association, he had a stutter. But he soon managed to overcome this obstacle and now talks normally.
Bouabid explains that despite the civil society’s efforts, the financial resources are proving to be limited.
The state is trying to combat the phenomenon of street children. The first mobile unit in the emergency social services, essentially targeting street children, was formed last September in Casablanca, with the intention of being rolled out to all cities in Morocco. Five child protection units will be set up in Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangiers, Fez and Laâyoune, thanks to a special judicial framework.
According to the state secretariat with responsibility for families, children and the handicapped, the "idmaj" programme, which is part of the national childhood plan of action (2006-2015), aims at reintegrating street children, concentrating its work in the first stage on large- and medium-sized towns.
In Casablanca, the paramedic service patrols go out every other day. From 9pm to 5am, a mobile team combs the areas of Casa-port, the fishing port, Place Verdun, the Ancient Medina, Mers Sultan, Derb Omar and the Korea district, looking for children. First aid consists of Betadine antiseptic and sticking plasters for those who have injuries, in addition to psychiatric help. "As for the most serious cases, such as fractures, bronchitis attacks or major cuts, these are taken to hospital," explains Afifa Belghiti, director of the paramedic service.
With both the state and civil society involved in the effort to offer Morocco’s street children a better reality, the onus is on families to provide these children protection and a sense of belonging. According to the Bayti NGO, which has been trying to reintegrate street children into their families and schools, the success of these efforts is contingent not only on financial support, but on a true partnership between the family, the school, the state, the NGO and the private sector.