“There are no street children in Pakistan”

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Tears streamed down my face as I sat with my son in a Cambridge Arts Picture House watching a film aboutUmthombo – a charity in Durban, South Africa that helps street children. Umthombo have been involved with fielding a team for the Street Child World Cup and the film was a moving testament to the amazing ability sport has to transform people’s lives.

When the film ended, Chris Rose from Amos Trust – the organisation behind Street Child World Cup – spoke about the successes in the other countries who had fielded teams in the 2010 competition. Eight national teams had taken part: Brazil; India; Nicaragua; Philippines; Tanzania; UK; and Ukraine.

Durban is home to the biggest Indian population in a city outside of India – so perhaps fitting that India won the tournament in a match watched by the South African Minister for Children – and they returned home to an exuberant crowd after extensive media coverage. One of the players, Jatinder Singh was later picked for the India under 16s World Cup team.

-Courtesy of Street Child World Cup.

As Chris spoke about their aspirations for Brazil in 2014 – for more teams to raise more awareness of the plight of street children worldwide – I couldn’t help but think of Pakistan. I had been writing about football and its power to bring about positive change in Pakistan – could this initiative help them?

-Courtesy of Street Child World Cup.

The starting point has been to find out about Pakistan’s street children. I was honestly staggered at how many Pakistanis I spoke to (both in the UK and in Pakistan) who claimed that Pakistan simply didn’t have a problem with homelessness and children. Some even bragged that Pakistan was “not a country of beggars”, like neighbouring India.

My mission on these pages is not about casting further shadows on Pakistan – who is already blighted with negative press – but to showcase wherever possible, the better, inspirational aspects of the nation, in the hope that a more encouraging narrative emerges to fuel positive change.

So perhaps rather than pointing out the obvious – that, despite the title of this piece, Pakistan has a problem, like many other countries in the world, with children sleeping on the streets, often alone and abused – here is space to look at the remarkable work of people in Pakistan who do not turn a blind eye to the ills of Pakistan’s most vulnerable.

So far I have unearthed two amazing charities who work specifically with street children. I am sure there are others – and I encourage them to share their work with links on these pages.

The DOST Foundation has been graced with an article about their work in the Huffington Post. The article “Pakistan school strives to beat the Taliban trap” paints a bleak picture, but more of the drug trap than of the Taliban trap. The crucial thing not to miss is the meaning of DOST (i.e “friend”) and the hugely motivated team behind the charity.

-Courtesy of DOST Foundation.

I was in touch with Dr Parveen Azam Khan, and asked her what she would say to someone who said Pakistan had no such problems. She said that, “homelessness in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a problem for human beings most affected by the so called ‘war on terror’, as we are on the frontline, bordering Afghanistan. Many of the refugees from Afghanistan who took refuge in the area more than 30 years ago are still here. Their children are also homeless street children. Besides this, the big earthquake and recent floods rendered many families homeless. Added to all this, the ongoing insurgency, militancy and being in the war zone has led to an escalation in poverty and homelessness”.

To get an idea of the scale of their work (and of the problem), since 1993 DOST, which Dr Khan established, has provided services to over 11,000 street children – with close to 4000 children provided with psycho-social and rehabilitation services. Dr Khan said that the biggest challenge faced by the children on the streets and prisons is the lack of financial support for organizations like DOST, “who continue against all odds to reach out with a message of hope and healing to these “lesser children””.

She added, “any support extended to us by donors is for six to 12 months only, whereas the needs are increasing and never ending”.

-Courtesy of DOST Foundation.

Perhaps reducing the figure from 11,000 down to one will reach you. I asked Dr Khan for some examples of the children who had been helped and amongst others she sent me this rather basic set of bullet points, which moved me deeply. It was on a page headed, “if there is a person who is symbol of courage and firm determination it is Osama.”

• Osama – a 13 year old Pakistani boy who ran away from home 3 years ago.
• He is a child of a broken family.
• At that time he was 10, when his father died during the war in Afghanistan. Osama’s father was in the Taliban Forces and wanted Osama to be a mujahid.
• Sudden death of his father and physical torture of his step mother made Osama run away from home.
• Osama went to Swabi, where he spent 2 years. But was sexually abused by the owner of a hotel.
• He ran away and came to Peshawar.
• This time again the little boy got abused sexually on the street.
• DOST outreach team found him on the street, it motivated him for shelter at DOST Welfare Foundation, where he was rehabilitated.
• He still wants to join Taliban to become a Holy Warrior.
• Despite all these hurdles and homelessness, Osama is still so innocent and loveable.

-Courtesy of DOST Foundation.

The fact that someone could write about this child as a lovable innocent is true testament to the human spirit. Another boy, Dr Khan told me about was 10 year old Yaseen who is a drug addict and involved in the sex trade to get cash. As the work of Umthombo in South Africa shows – no matter how drug addled and abused, no child should be given up on.

A second charity – The Azad Foundation was introduced to me by pure chance. They operate in Karachi – a city where I had been assured had no homeless children.

Azad’s website describes how, for many children fleeing poverty and the pressure to “earn”, landing on the street seems to be a pleasant experience at first, “a sense of freedom, curiosity fueled by passion to crush the ghost past under feet, sadly when reality emerges into realisation life unfolds its horrible wings”.

Azad, which emerged in 1998 as an initiative by students and staff at Karachi University, includes a creative approach – they have formed theatre to highlight the issue. “Class divisions and poverty were the most talked about issues” says Azad, with discrimination apparently based on the social, economic or ethnic backgrounds of the children.

Azad have undertaken serious research into the problem of street children, not just in Karachi, but in Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta. Eight years ago they established the first drop in center for the protection and rehabilitation of street children. The center was initiated in Saddar Town in Karachi – one of the few places I have visited in Pakistan and now regret not “dropping in”.

Last Friday, I spent one single night sleeping on the streets of London, with 60 others. Between us we raised close to £10,000 for Street Child World Cup by one simple, if cold and uncomfortable act. Of those I asked to sponsor me, it was the British Pakistani community who glowed brightest – more than half of the funds I raised came from them. And you might think this a grim article – but it those that give, those that act and those that commit their lives to organisations like Azad and DOST that we should be celebrating. Dr Parveen Azam Khan is a very special woman indeed – but there is genuine hope and generosity in many of us – especially in Pakistan.

-Courtesy of DOST Foundation.

You might wonder how taking a small team of footballers comprising of homeless children might make a difference. In 2010 the Tanzanian team returned home and lead discussions for 50 police commanders about their rights, which drew the attention of the President. The Mayor greeted the Ukrainian team, but travelling with them was the regional governor of Kharkiv, who is now committed to working with children’s institutions. The team from the UK continue to meet with youth workers and some are pursuing ambitions in professional sport. Every single member of the Nicaraguan team are off the streets and have been reintegrated with their families under the programme.

The major media coverage the Brazil team received has helped change people’s attitude to street children and there is much work being done to prepare for The next Street Child World Cup in Brazil.

So from Pakistan’s street children, let’s hope to see a team for Brazil in 2014 – it would be great to see them challenge India in an exciting final!