Karachi street boys find a friend
Karachi, Pakistan, June 2006: Fourteen-year old Akbar breaks seven eggs into an aluminum frying pan sizzling with sunflower oil and red chili powder. He’s making his favourite dish, an omlette. Next to him, parathas – girdle-fried flat bread - are neatly stacked on a plate. Akbar got them as a hand-out for street children from a nearby hotel. The eggs he bought with his own money. Akbar has been up early, washing cars for a living and now he’s taking a break from a job that earns him US$ 2.5 a day.
This lanky boy with a hollow gaze is a regular in the kitchen at the Dost Drop-in Centre for Street Boys in Pakistan’s industrial and commercial hub. Dost – which means ‘friend’ in Urdu – was opened in the central part of the mega-city eight months ago with UNICEF support.
There are an estimated 10,000 street children in Karachi. Some work in the streets and go back to their families at the end of the day whilst homeless boys like Akbar live in gangs of ten or more kids and sleep in filthy sewage pipes, open parks or bus stations.
“We wanted the children to have a place without threat,” says the head of the UNICEF provincial office in Sindh, Raana Syed, “A place where children had access to informed, concerned adults who could advise them and slowly get the boys to change perceptions of themselves.”
Thanks to the efforts of Dost social mobilisers, who conduct night visits to the spots where street children hang out, more than 550 street boys have been registered at the centre. They are provided with medical care, bathing facilities, counseling, life skills training, support for family reunification and most importantly, a caring team of staff that act as their confidantes and friends. Board games and impromptu games of cricket round out the programme.
The many hours spent on garbage dumps collecting metal and paper for recycling or selling sex in red-light districts leave the children feeling both physically and emotionally dirty. Extortion, verbal and physical abuse from the general public and the police in particular are daily threats for street children, further damaging their self-esteem.
“The children want to be seen as normal children – or what we call ‘achhay bachhay’ – good children,” says Syed.
Akbar has certainly made an effort to be one of the achhay bachhay. His black hair is still glistening from the bath he took and he is wearing a newly washed bright red vest. After his breakfast, he sits down in the private counseling room and starts drawing a picture of the yellow and red house he was forced to leave many years ago. His voice is flat as he explains why he lives on the street:
“My step-brother brought me to Karachi. He murdered my father. I was under the bed hiding when it happened. My father loved me and he was a friendly man. My step-brother took my mother and my younger sister away and then he brought me here where he eventually left me at a roundabout. I was only five. I was crying and wandering about when a man took me to his house and employed me as a servant. I worked there for some years but ran away. They used to beat me. I started begging, I slept in the open and got food from a restaurant. That is when I met a gang. They offered me glue but I’m now trying to stop sniffing.”
“Akbar is suffering from post-traumatic distress,” says Somia Tariq, a clinical psychologist working at the Dost centre, “And the home environment is highly responsible.”
According to Somia, most of the boys that come to the centre suffer from aggression, impulsiveness, restlessness and hyperactivity. She uses a combination of techniques such as play therapy, anger management, relaxation and self-awareness exercises to help them deal with their emotional pain. Three boys, including Akbar, have developed a close rapport with Somia and they come to see her twice a week.
“They have started taking care of themselves,” she says, “Their clothes are clean and they have started depositing the money they earn with us. We keep it for them in a locked drawer.”
Helping street children regain their sense of dignity and self-respect is crucial to the children’s return to a healthier and safer life. As is changing society’s perceptions of street children.
“Society finds nothing wrong with children selling flowers at traffic lights,” says Syed, “We need to ask ourselves, why is this child on the street? Is he vulnerable? Is he being exploited?”