I Am a New Person
Some eight years ago, when 14-year old Ramin and his mother were passing through the narrow alleys of Shoush, a slum area in southern Tehran, his mother noticed a small sign indicating the offices of the Association for the Protection of Child Labourers. It was just out of curiosity that they entered to see what was going on in the old-style traditional building with the large yard that houses the Associations’ staff. “That day I found happiness – I felt I had discovered something precious,” Ramin says today.
With the support of UNICEF, this NGO is running an education project that helps child labourers and refugee children, mostly Afghans, enjoy a basic education. Although it is not easy to prise working children away from their jobs to put them behind a school desk, the NGO has been working with these children since July 2008.
Ramin, an Afghan boy living in Tehran with his 10 siblings – “another one is coming”, he shyly says – gets up at 7.30 every morning and takes his younger brothers and sisters to school. Afterwards, he drops by a local knitting workshop, where he picks up socks for the entire family to embroider, as an additional source of income. At 9.00, he leaves to go to the Association, where he attends school until 11.30. When he comes home after this, there is still work to do, in the house and for the family. “I mostly don’t even have time to have breakfast’, he says.
However, his life has improved considerably. He used to work with his family from 5.00 in the morning until midnight when he started attending classes at the NGO. The Association makes basic education a priority for the children that receive their services, but other classes and activities are also available. The youngsters can enrol in art classes and vocational training, or simply join collective fun projects. The day we met Ramin, he and his fellow pupils were planting trees in the school yard to celebrate national tree planting day, an activity that combined pleasure with environmental education.
The children are also examined by a medical doctor, and may be referred to a paediatrician for a more detailed check-up if necessary. Both children and families can obtain consultation services to help them cope with their difficult economic and social situation, an issue that often compounds the problems they face when leaving their homeland and having to integrate into a new society and culture. Social workers frequently work with the children to help them throughout this difficult time of their life.
“School has brought order into my life,” Ramin says. Far from being ashamed or sad, he says that he has learned to respect everyone. “My behaviour has changed a lot – I am a new person!”, he says proudly. His comment reflects the success of this joint project – to take children out of their routines, help them move beyond their often miserable life circumstances and give them a glimpse of what possibilities the future can bring for them.
As for Ramin, his main wish is to make a contribution to his home country, as a “kind soldier”. “I want to defend my country and bring back happiness to Afghanistan,” he says. “People’s lives should not be so miserable anymore”. As he says it, a smile crosses his face, his big brown eyes sparkling with hope.