Morocco’s street children live a difficult life, often filled with narcotics and crime. Efforts to reintegrate them into families and schools are small and somewhat successful but experts say the problem is large and its root lies in poverty and difficult social circumstances.
By Imane Belhaj for Magharebia from Casablanca -13/03/08
[Imane Belhaj] Public places serve as beds for Morocco’s street children, who leave home due to dire poverty. Morocco’s government and civil society have begun efforts to reintegrate the children into families and schools.
Othmane left his home and school at the age of 14 to live on the street. He no longer wanted to see his mother fight the daily battle to get bread for his five little siblings, struggle to lease a shantytown house and pay for his school expenses. "The street is not more merciful," Othmane says "This is a lie; but at least she will not have to think about my daily living. In the meantime, I may be able to help her." Othmane carries bags of vegetables and other purchases for customers at a nearby market. In this way, he earns a few dirhams a day, enough to bring a little money back home when he visits once a week and still be able to buy the cheap narcotics which help him endure his suffering.
Othmane is part of the growing number of street children in Morocco. These are the homeless and marginalized youths without identity or family. The sidewalks are their shelters and the bakeries’ doorsteps are their pillows.
In Casablanca, these children’s main "residences" are alleys in the old city, the port, the train station and the fruits and vegetables wholesale market. The port provides them with an opportunity to emigrate illegally. The wholesale market gives them the chance to work as porters and make money to buy drugs. At the train station, they can earn a bit from helping passengers or by begging for handouts from tourists.
According to the most recent statistics from Morocco’s Secretariat of State for Family, Solidarity and Social Action, 7,000 street children live in Casablanca wilaya alone. 8,800 more live in other major cities such as Marrakech, Fez, and Meknes.
[Imane Belhaj] Estimates are unreliable because homeless children move between neighborhoods and cities in search of temporary refuge.
The figures are dated and unreliable, however, because homeless children do not stay in one place. They move between neighborhoods and cities in search of another temporary refuge. They are often fleeing dire poverty where six or 10 family members are crammed into a single room.
Moroccan civil society has adopted a strategy of building centres to shelter some of these street children and attempt to reintegrate them into schools and families, but the challenge is enormous. The number of children usually exceeds the centres’ financial capabilities and many are turned away.
"We try to provide some assistance to these children. We don’t claim that we will solve the problem once and for all," says Al Tahir Skali of the Casbah Association for Children in Difficult Situations.
His group is now building a homeless shelter for children in Mohammedia, as part of the National Initiative for Human Development. The shelter will provide accommodation, schooling, food and, eventually, socio-professional integration. But while there are thousands of these children in the city of Mohammedia alone, the centre will host no more than 100 of them. Even if the experiment succeeds, it will be just a tiny drop in the sea.
Skali acknowledges the difficulty of intervening in the fight against homelessness. "Drug addiction make a lot of people not respond to our initiatives," he says. "They usually flee to embrace the street again. This makes us feel that we have failed, except in very rare cases. However, we haven’t lost hope, and we have adopted a policy of prevention. Today, we look for potential street children from very poor families. We call on these families to care about their children, shelter them in that centre and help them go back to school or continue their vocational training."
Hamid Tachfin, a social worker at the Bayti association, agrees that poverty has contributed to the epidemic of street children. Difficult social circumstances can push children onto the street and often, into the world of drugs and crime.
[Imane Belhaj] Poverty, marital disputes and divorce are some of the root causes that drive children into the streets.
"We have reached a conclusion that great sufferings are behind many of the cases," Tachfin says. "Family poverty, school failure, fear of family, parental divorce [and] marital disputes are the main causes that make them go out to the street and embrace a fate unknown."
Convincing street children to put their trust in the centres and associations designed to assist them is still difficult. The homeless youths have lost all confidence in society’s ability to help them. They have lost confidence even in themselves. They often have no other desire than to run freely and live without adult control.
One success story, however, may be that of 12-year-old Noureddine. Other street children beat him harshly and regularly for the sake of amusement, but Bayti rescued him from the street.
"I have found a new haven and new friends here," he says. "The most important thing is that I returned to school, and I will never quit it, provided that Bayti support me all the way up to the end. This is an opportunity not available to everyone," the boy added.
Efforts by Morocco’s few centres and associations dedicated to helping street children seem to be working, Bayti president Najat M’jid says. "When we look at the number of children whom we are able to reintegrate annually, whether with families or schools, we find out that we are progressing year after year."
M’jit adds, however, that in terms of addressing this phenomenon as a whole, much remains to be done. "We haven’t yet drawn up a specific plan to address the real problems that breed street children: poverty, rural immigration, schooling and its quality, the rising rate of unemployment and youth’s loss of hope in building their future in their country," she says.