At least 60,000 street urchins roam the city of Kabul. Straight out of the pages of Oliver Twist, they are beggars, pickpockets, incense burners, shoeshine boys, porters, ragpickers, scrap-metal collectors and trinket hawkers. At first light, you see them carrying heavy jugs up the mountainsides to the growing slum settlements, to sell water for the equivalent of a handful of pennies per jug. At dusk, they’re still working, racing through traffic at busy intersections, selling chewing gum, maps, matches and cigarettes.
“The main problem for these street children, these working children, it is like they are treated as though they are not human,” says 40-year-old Mohammed Yousef, a devoted children’s rights crusader. “If there are children who are stealing food, the police will only look at the clothing the children are wearing. The ones in rags, they will beat them.”
Yousef is the manager of Aschiana, a unique, multi-faceted initiative. It’s an elementary school, an emergency shelter, an outreach program, the student-run “Voice of Afghan Children” newspaper, a vocational training centre, a hub for political advocacy, and a sort of a bank run by the street kids themselves.
Every year, Aschiana’s services reach as many as 10,000 street children, many of them orphans and runaways. Wander through Aschiana’s complex in the heart of Kabul and you’ll find children working in gardens, playing on a basketball court, or hard at work in literacy, photography, calligraphy and computer classes. There are sewing, embroidery and tailoring programs, karate classes, a traditional music program, and a popular artists’ workshop. But it was the Children’s Development Bank that Yousef wanted to talk about.
“Actually it’s not a bank, but the name is bank,” Yousef told me. It runs more like a member-owned credit union. “We use this as a toolkit for education about the way of democracy, to respect each other, and also to teach the children to be able to manage their lives and their money for the future.”
Starting from a micro-finance loan scheme involving 35 families, Aschiana’s “bank” quickly grew to include more than 1,000 street children, mostly girls. With an initial deposit of 20 Afghanis – about 40 cents – the children get a passbook, a safe place to keep their meagre street earnings, the right to apply for loans, and the ability to elect loan committees. Children over 15 who apply for “small business” loans have to make their case to an elected committee of children under 15, and vice-versa. Loans are awarded on merit – applicants have to find backers and guarantors and show that they’ve developed sensible business plans.
“They are also motivated to bring some extra money for their savings. For every ten Afghani you borrow, you should save two Afghani in the bank. At the end, when their loan is finished, then they have some savings, too.”
Yousef trained as a radio engineer, but with the collapse of Afghanistan, the wars between the Taliban and the mujahedeen factions and the Taliban’s eventual banning of radio stations,Yousef had no career to speak of. He ended up hired to work in a refugee camp, and he got the idea for Aschiana in just as the Taliban were taking control.
“One day I met a boy from the refugee camp. He was a shoeshine boy.”
It’s a heartbreaking but typical story. The boy had been at the top of his class. “He could have been a doctor or a teacher.” The boy’s parents were both teachers, but his father had been injured and the school where his mother worked had been shuttered. His sister was unable to work, leaving the boy to shine shoes as the family’s sole breadwinner.
Yousef spent a brief spell in prison during the Taliban years, for the crime of teaching girls how to read. He and his wife Osia have seven children, and things are definitely looking up. “But in my work, there is a lot of pressure. Working with street children will have an impact on you. It is not easy, but you want to do something. You have to do something.”