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2006 FIFA World Cup

Football brings hope to Zhang Kai, 16, and other former street children in China

UNICEF Image: UNICEF image China Zhen Zhou playing football
© UNICEF China/2006/Li
Zhang Kai, 16, left his abusive household to wander the streets of Zheng Zhou.

For the 2006 FIFA World Cup, UNICEF and FIFA are campaigning to ensure a more peaceful world for children. This is a profile of one of Team UNICEF's star players.

By Kun Li

ZHENG ZHOU, China – Sixteen year-old Zhang Kai had many dreams, but after his parents divorced, he found himself alone and helpless in this city of 7 million people.

“I came to Zheng Zhou with my mom,” he says. “She treated me bad, so I left her and started wandering the streets.”

A major hub connecting all of China’s major railroads, Zheng Zhou is not only host to tens of thousands of travellers every day but also attracts scores of homeless children from all over China.

“Based on our research, most of the street children come from broken families,” explains Deputy Director Xie Xiaowei of the Zheng Zhou Street Children Protection Centre. “Also, many children from rural areas leave their villages behind, seeking work in urban cities. But because of their lack of education and skills, the children often find themselves wandering the streets instead of getting a job.”

UNICEF Image: UNICEF image China Zhen Zhou playing football
© UNICEF China/2006/Li
Kai says that football makes him stronger and enables him to meet friends.

A chance for a better future

Although Kai escaped his mother’s abuse, he had to find a way to support himself. “I found a job at a little restaurant,” he recalls. “They were nice to me – offered me food and a place to stay. I even got paid.”

Life also took a turn for the better after Kai arrived at Zheng Zhou Street Children Protection Centre. Supported by UNICEF, the centre provides children with food, shelter and recreational activities. Staff members help locate relatives, while the children catch up on their literacy studies and learn vocational skills.

Over the past 10 years, the centre has supported more than 8,000 street children, helping them acquire useful skills while finding families for many younger ones.

“What we are trying to do is to help these children return to mainstream society one day. We wish for them to grow up healthy and become useful,” says Ms. Xie.

UNICEF Image: UNICEF image China Zhen Zhou playing football
© UNICEF China/2006/Li
Zhang Kai, 16, is studying to become a computer operator.

Football facilitates friendship

Studying to become a computer operator, Kai has also discovered the power of football. During breaks, he is often found playing with friends next to the centre’s garden. Although a proper field has yet to be built – and none of the boys is dressed to play the sport – the children are quite happy to be out there.

“I love football,” says a winded Kai following a Sunday afternoon game. “First, it can make me stronger. Second, it helps me make many friends.”

For Kai and his friends, the misery of street life has been left far behind. They now spend their days looking ahead at a much brighter future. “I hope when David Beckham retires, I will be the new Beckham,” Kai says with a beaming smile.



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UNICEF correspondent Kun Li reports from China on Zhang Kai, a 16-year-old footballer who escaped domestic abuse.

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