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Going back to the streets to extend a hand to homeless children in Pakistan

© UNICEF/Pak/Ramoneda
Ali (centre), who lived in the streets of Karachi as a child, approaches street children to encourage them to attend the UNICEF supported child centre

By Antonia Paradela

KARACHI, Pakistan, December 2009 – Ali Mohammed lowers his head shyly as he recounts his work routine as a peer educator for street children. "When I go to the street to find children, I see in which situation they are. 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 cloths or dirty feet, I tell them: "You can wash and repair your clothes there". For Ali (not his real name), the streets used to be his home. He left his family because of physical abuse and when he was 14 came to one of the child centres from the local NGO Azad Foundation supported by UNICEF in Karachi.

"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", says Ali.

A young looking eighteen year old, Ali knows that gaining the trust of the street children is crucial. "Some believe in what I say, others are afraid or  unsure of my intentions". His persuasion skills work. "Most of the children I approach come to the center, even those who are reluctant, come after two or three days".

"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", says Ali. "I can understand the difficulties they have".

Karachi is Pakistan largest city with more than 16 million inhabitants. Its streets are also the home of over 32,000 children who work in the streets, of which 5,500 live entirely on the street, according to a 2007 study. 

The streets are full of dangers for the children who live there, says Waseen Fatima, a psychologist at the child centre. "The use of drugs is common and most of the children suffer from sexual abuse or harassment".

For Ali the job is challenging. "I feel fear when I approach the street children. Sometimes I see myself as still one of them", he says remembering his vulnerability. "But I overcome my fear because now I feel confident. I feel I have a backup in the team at the child centre. I have come a long way".

© UNICEF/Pak/Ramoneda
Children in the streets of Karachi are at risk of substance abuse

Ali's rehabilitation was a challenging process. He went twice into detoxification but went back to drugs again. He was reunified three times with his family but they fell apart again. Ali ended up going to a residential shelter run by Azad Foundation that took him out of the streets and its temptations. His family also received counselling. He found a job in the centre. He now lives again with his family. "It is not without its difficulties but he is getting support", says Waseen Fatima.

"When I came, I was nothing", says Ali. "I learnt many things, to read and write and to do embroidery. Most important, I learned to help others who are living in the street. My dream is to become a motivator and a good human being".

In 2009 with UNICEF support, more than 50,000 children have been provided with protection services, life skills training and non formal education through district child protection units, helplines, child protection centres, schools and hospital committees in the main cities of Pakistan.



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