Morning Edition, January 30, 2008 · On any given day in the towns and cities of Afghanistan, tens of thousands of children head to the streets to beg and hawk sundries — even during the winter, when bitter winds and snow keep most adults indoors.
These street kids, who earn on average less than $2 a day, are often the only means of support for their families. And their numbers are growing.
In Kabul’s trendy Shahre-Naw neighborhood, 10-year-old Jamal, a waif of a salesman in faded pink boots, is hawking gum for about 20 cents. Determined to score a sale, no matter what, he chases after pedestrians and darts in and out of snarled traffic.
"I’m a little scared of the cars," he says. "One hit me coming the wrong way down the street. But I wasn’t hurt too bad."
Jamal says he has worked on this corner for four years. He is one of an estimated 60,000 children in Afghanistan who work the streets, says Mohammad Yousef, who heads Aschiana, a nonprofit group that helps street kids.
"Majority of them, they are not going to the school because they are working full time," Yousef says. "Early in the morning, they are starting, they are working. Until evening they are working to have a piece of bread or something for their families."
A Legacy of War
Yousef says Afghanistan’s street kids are the legacy of a quarter-century of war that stripped the country of safety nets like schools and social services. Growing unemployment and living costs are swelling their numbers.
He and others say the Afghan government has done little to help street children, given other burning issues like the ongoing war against the Taliban.
Many of the street kids take their plight in stride. They help each other, too — for good luck, they say — like giving some money to a boy or girl who fails to sell anything. But a few admit they hate being out on the streets.
Eleven-year-old Ruzadin, a pale boy with weathered skin and a faded wool cap, says it’s like being a beggar. He hounds passersby with a soft, monotonous plea for 10 cents, while waving a can of burning incense to ward off the evil eye.
Next year, Ruzadin hopes to do something more rewarding, such as working in a hotel or store like his older brother.
Helping the Next Generation
Yousef says that’s not good enough. He fears that kids like Ruzadin will become another generation of undereducated, underemployed adults who send their children to work on the streets.
His group, Aschiana, offers classes to thousands of street kids — such as one in Kabul that teaches them to play traditional Afghan musical instruments — to try to break the cycle. They also teach the children to read and write. The idea, Yousef says, is to boost their skills and ambition.
The children attend class for only a few hours each day, so they can still earn money for their families. Ahmad Zia, 14, learned to play the accordion-like Armonia and wants to become a famous musician. But he has no plans to give up his day job.
"Why should I be upset about having to work the streets?" he says. "I have no choice. My father is old, my mother is weak and only I can make the household run. So I need to sell plastic bags."
Afghan singer and activist Farhad Darya says that’s unacceptable. He believes education — not work — should be the priority for these children and that Afghans need to do more to address the needs of street kids.
"We’re sure that [it is] is not the people from outside who guarantee our future," Darya says. "[It] is these children who are left behind out there, so we must do something for our future."
Darya, who lives with his family in Virginia, started a program called "Kooche," or Street, to provide for Afghan street kids. He says he has opened bank accounts for 2,000 widows, who receive $50 a month provided they send at least one of their children to school.