Former Street Child Offers Afghan Children Education, Better Life

KABUL, Afghanistan - Engineer Mohammad Yousef settled comfortably into a strong, cushioned chair before spitting out his coming-of-age tale all in a rush.

"During the civil war my father was killed by a bombing and people told my mother to go to the streets and beg but I didn't want that so I stopped my schooling," said the 39-year-old from Ghazni province, sitting in his corner office across from Shahr-e-Nau park in Kabul. "I became like a street child and earned some hand-outs to feed my mother, my sister and myself and then I noticed so many kids on the streets and I was thinking: Why we should not do something for these children? They want to become educated. They have the talent, they have the capacity and they want to become a good member of the community but the war has put them in a very bad condition."

At that time Kabul had about 10,000 street children and Yousef, then 20, went around the city asking everyone he knew and many he didn't know for funds to start a school.

"Most people thought I wanted to make an army with all these children so they wouldn't help me," Yousef recalled with a half smile.

Years of rejection passed until the American newswire Reuters offered a few thousand dollars in 1995. Yousef found a few abandoned offices, hired a couple teachers and chose the name Aschiana, which means "bird's nest" in Dari and symbolizes protection. Within a few years funding appeared from the Canadian International Development Agency, CARE International and the United Nations Children's Fund. It's been mostly smooth sailing ever since.

"Last year we had 10,000 students at seven schools and four outreach centers in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, and Parhwan," said Yousef of his organization, which now teaches refugee children as well. "So we're doing alright."

These days, an estimated 70,000 street children run loose in Kabul, hawking maps and newspapers, begging for change, and committing minor crimes at the urging of small-time gangsters. Tens of thousands more wrestle daily with hunger and idleness in cities and displacement camps across the country. For all of them Aschiana offers safety, shelter, nourishment and a sense of self, not to mention the possibility of a better life.

On a bright September afternoon sunlight streaks into a row of clean, narrow classrooms at Aschiana's Shahr-e-Nau school, where well-behaved youngsters sat rapt. In one, young girls stepped up to a blackboard and confidently called out a series of prime numbers with a pointer. In another, a rail-thin boy furrowed his brow and tucked his tongue over his lip while carving an intricate design on top of a wooden jewel box.

"I like working with wood," said 12-year-old Mohammad Balk'l, looking up. "Someday I would like to build a cabinet."

He's ambitious, not unlike the Aschiana curriculum: basic literacy, math, English, woodworking, computers, geography, physical education, arts and music. The students are aged 7 to 17, and Yousef recently added anti-drug and HIV/AIDS programs. Every student receives a full meal and must take Yousef's favorite course, peace education.

"Most of the time children learn violence, in the street, in the house; they hear about bombs," he said. "It is important that we are thinking about peace and safety and security in the future."

This year, however, Aschiana's future clouded. After months of delay in payment its main donor, the European Commission, told Yousef they were reassessing their donation. Aschiana had to scale back operations but Yousef hopes it's just temporary - in September the EC said it would release the funds soon.

Yet somehow the organization has been able to expand its reach - it's the only non-governmental organization working daily at the Char-e-Qambar refugee camp on the edge of Kabul. Since April, Aschiana has run seperate boys and girls schools there, feeding each student a lunch of bean soup and bread.

"I went and saw the situation out there and decided to work there, also hoping to gain attention of government and other NGOs to help," said Yousef, who noted that Aschiana required no special clearance because it has an agreement with the government to work in any part of Afghanistan. "These children are displaced due to war so if we can make them busy with some activities they forget the risks of war."

Aschiana is looking to grow. The life of street children in Afghanistan has taken a darker turn in recent years, with kids as young eight or 10 selling drugs and getting involved in kidnappings and even murders.

"In the future we will work with marginalized children to integrate them into the community," said Yousef. He has spoken with the police and plans to create a special class for child criminals and an emergency shelter for the most at-risk children. "There's a lot more we can do."

Yousef has begun looking outside Afghanistan for help. Only one Westerner works at Aschiana but the organization is seeking more English-speakers to contact donors and win funding, to handle the budget and communicate with international aid groups. Full-time hires as well as volunteers and interns are welcome.

"We need people with experience in development, education, psychology, management and IT," Yousef said.

Just down the hall sunlight streamed into a high-ceilinged gym, where boys in baggy judo outfits lined up to flip, kick and tumble on green and red rubber mats.

"I don't like being on the outside," said Ahmed as he paused to catch his breath. The 10-year-old from Panjshir has lived on the streets of Kabul since he was about 6. "This is so much better."

-- posted on devex.com on October 10.

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