Saving Afghanistan's Street Children

14 November 2012

by Engineer Mohammad Yousef

How Aschiana gives needy children a fresh start

Mohammad Yousef clearly remembers chatting with a young shoeshine boy during the dark days of the Afghan civil war.

That meeting, in a Kabul park almost thirty years ago, changed Yousef's life.

"The boy was 12 or thirteen years old," he remembers. "He was a very clever, talented child".

Yousef recalls trying to encourage the boy to go back to school, telling him he needed qualifications or skills in order to help his family.  "You should be thinking about education," he told the lad.

Aschiana teaches internally displaced childrenThe boy's response took him by surprise.  "Are you thinking that I don't know exactly the importance of education?  Are you thinking that my mother is not an educated woman?  Are you thinking that my father was not an educated person?"

The boy's father, it transpired, had been a teacher at a military university, but died after being injured in a rocket attack.  His mother, also a university graduate, lost her job as a head teacher after her school closed.

The young lad, Yousef discovered, knew only too well the value of education.  But someone in his household had to earn a living.  Despite being top of his class, he quit school and started shining shoes in the street.

For Yousef, it was a life-changing moment.  "I started thinking.....why should I not do something for these children?  They have the talent, they know the importance of education, they are the future of this country.  Why should I not do something?"

He began discussing it with friends working with the United Nations or NGOs.  At first they were dismissive.  But Yousef persisted.

In 1995, with funding from a Swiss NGO, he started a programme to help four hundred children living or working on Kabul's streets.

It was the first programme of its kind in Afghanistan.

His organisation - Aschiana - blossomed from there.  It now helps more than 10,000 children across six provinces, offering schooling, health education vocational training and working with the government on child protection issues.

Aschiana teaches internally displaced childrenIts programmes now include other categories of needy children - the disabled, youngsters living in internal displacement camps and children who have fallen foul of the law.  It provides programmes enabling girls married off in their early teens to acquire skills and education, and helps to rehabilitate children with drug problems.

The sheer number of Afghan children in need of help is alarming.  Yousef estimates that around 60-70,000 children now work on the streets of Kabul alone.  And that number is growing daily as more internally displaced families move to the capital.  Overall, he estimates that around 6 million Afghan children are at risk, for one reason or another.

Aschiana has already helped to transform the lives of many youngsters.  Asked what he considers to be the organisation's greatest success story, Yousef chuckles.  "Success," as far as he's concerned, is seeing any street child continue their education and get a good job.

Nevertheless, he admits that some students have done particularly well.  One orphaned boy helped by Aschiana is now studying at a Japanese University.  Yousef is particularly proud of another Aschiana graduate, who enjoyed calligraphy, painting and drawing. "He's now head of the National Gallery." he smiles.

But what happened to the young shoeshine boy who started it all?  Yousef is not entirely sure.  The boy joined the Aschiana programme for a while, then his family moved to Ghazni province.  "I hope he's been able to continue his education," he says.