Children Try to Make a Living on Afghan Streets On any given day in the towns and cities of Afghanistan, tens of thousands of children head to the streets to beg and hawk sundries. These street kids, who earn on average less than $2 a day, are often the only means of support for their families — and their numbers are growing.

Children Try to Make a Living on Afghan Streets

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's a challenge to collect statistics on anything in Afghanistan, especially something like the number of kids living on the streets. But the United Nations and other groups estimate that conflict and poverty force tens of thousands of children out on the streets every day. They beg food or sell it. They sell other odds and ends, usually making less than $2 per day. And with those meager earnings they often support their families, which means they're out on the streets even now during Afghanistan's bitter winter.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from the streets of Kabul.

JAMAL: (Speaking foreign language)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: This waif of a salesman in faded pink boots is 10 years old. His name is Jamal and he is hawking gum in Kabul's trendy Shahre-Naw neighborhood.

JAMAL: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: That's about 20 cents. He's determined to score a sale, no matter what. He chases after pedestrians and darts in and out of snarled traffic.

JAMAL: (Through translator) I'm a little scared of the cars. One hit me coming the wrong way down the street, but I wasn't hurt too bad.

NELSON: Jamal says he has worked this corner for four years. He's one of an estimated 60,000 children in Afghanistan who work the streets, says Mohammad Yousef, who heads Aschiana, a nonprofit group that helps street kids.

Mr. MOHAMMAD YOUSEF (Aschiana Director): Majority of them, they are not going to the school because they are working full time. Early in the morning they are starting, they are working. Until evening they are working to have a piece of bread or something for their family.

NELSON: Yousef says Afghanistan's street kids are the legacy of a quarter-century of war that stripped their country of safety nets like schools and social services. Growing unemployment and living costs are swelling their numbers. He and others say the Afghan government has done little to help street children, given other burning issues like the ongoing war against the Taliban.

Many of the street kids take their plight in stride. They help each other too - for good luck, they say - like giving a few Afghanis to a boy or girl who fails to sell anything. But a few admit they hate being out here, like 11-year-old Ruzadin, a pale boy with weathered skin and a faded wool cap. He hounds passersby with a soft, monotonous plea for 10 cents, while waving a can of burning incense to ward off the evil eye.

RUZADIN: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: It's like being a beggar, he says.

Next year he hopes to do something more rewarding, such as working in a hotel or a store like his older brother.

Ashiana director Mohammad Yousef says that's not good enough. He fears kids like Ruzadin will become another generation of undereducated, underemployed adults who send their children to work on the streets.

(Soundbite of music)

NELSON: Aschiana offers classes to thousands of street kids like this one in Kabul, teaching them to play traditional Afghan musical instruments to try and break the cycle. They also teach the children to read and write. The idea, Yousef says, is to boost their skills and ambition.

The kids attend class for only a few hours each day so they can still earn money for their families. Fourteen-year-old Ahmad Zia learned to play the accordion-like Armonia and wants to become a famous musician. But he has no plans to give up his day job.

Mr. AHMAD ZIA: (Through translator) Why should I be upset about having to work the streets? I have no choice. My father is old, my mother is weak, and only I can make the household run. So I need to sell plastic bags.

NELSON: Afghan singer and activist Farhad Darya says that's unacceptable. He believes education - not work - should be the priority for these children, and that Afghans need to do more to address the needs of street kids.

Mr. FARHAD DARYA (Singer): We're sure that it is not the people from outside who guarantee our future. This is these children who are left behind out there, so we must do something for our future.

NELSON: Darya, who lives with his family in Virginia, started a program called Kooche, or street, to provide for Afghan street kids. He says he's opened bank accounts for 2,000 widows, who receive $50 a month provided they send at least one of their children to school.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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