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Helping homeless children get off the streets of Pakistan

© UNICEF Pakistan/2009/Ramoneda
Ali (centre) approaches street children to encourage them to visit a UNICEF-supported child centre.

By Antonia Paradela

KARACHI, Pakistan, 19 February 2010 – Tens of thousands of children live or work on the streets of this, Pakistan's largest city. For Ali (not his real name), these streets were once his home.

Ali left his family because of physical abuse. At the age of 14, he came to one of the child centres run by the Azad Foundation, a UNICEF-supported non-governmental organization. Now 18, he works as a peer educator for street children.

"When I go to the street to find children, I see in which situation they are," said Ali. "I talk to them and suggest that they come to the centre with me. I tell them they will find there a doctor and some education. If they have torn clothes or dirty feet, I tell them you can wash and repair your clothes there."

'I can understand'

Ali helps other children get off the streets and away from drugs. As a young person, he knows that gaining the trust of the street children is crucial. "I tell them my own story, that I was a street child like them, and I show them that now I am living a good life. I can understand the difficulties they have," said Ali.

"Some believe in what I say. Others are afraid or unsure of my intentions. Most of the children I approach come to the centre. Even those who are reluctant come after two or three days," he added.

"The streets are full of dangers for the children who live there," said Azad Foundation psychologist Waseen Fatima. "The use of drugs is common, and most of the children suffer from sexual abuse or harassment."

Overcoming fear

Ali's job is challenging. "I feel fear when I approach the street children. Sometimes I see myself as still one of them," he said. "But I overcome my fear because now I feel confident. I feel I have a back-up in the team at the child centre. I have come a long way."

Rehabilitation was a difficult process for Ali. He participated in rehab programmes twice but continued using drugs following treatment. He was reunited with his family three rtimes, only to be separated again – drawn back to life on the streets.

Ali finally went to a residential shelter run by the Azad Foundation, which took him off the streets and away from their temptations. Now that he has found a job at the centre, he again lives with his family, who also receive counselling.

"It is not without its difficulties, but he is getting support," said Fatima.

"When I came [to the centre], I was nothing," recalled Ali. "I learned many things, to read and write.... Most important, I learned to help others who are living in the street."



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