Three girls, Fatana, Shogofa and Nargis, are co-workers in the eggplant field on
the outskirts of Kabul. They start work before sunrise. In the summer, they
finish usually around 10 a.m., when it gets too hot to continue. They drink
water from the roadside pump and head off to school, about five kilometers
away in the Shash Durak district.
The class gathers slowly at the Aschiana Centre, a dilapidated brick
building covered with layers of faded yellow paint. By noon most students
have arrived and are preparing for a calligraphy lesson with the school
headmaster, Mr. Atiq. It is a very disciplined class. The silence is broken
only by the scratching of sharpened sticks dipped in black ink with which
the children draw the round letters of the Dari alphabet on scraps of
Aschiana means “nest” in the Dari language. It responds to the post-war
reality of the Afghan capital—an army of working street children whose
days are devoted to basic survival. Most of them are missing one or both
parents, and many live with distant relatives. They are too busy to go to
regular school and can only attend classes if they are sure that they will
not lose their meager incomes and go hungry, or without warm clothes in
Aschiana is an Afghan non-governmental organization working in partnership
with Terre des Hommes, a Geneva-based group devoted to helping children
around the world. Once in a while, other organizations help as well, such as
Canadian International Development Agency, which provided financing to train
the Afghan staff. In its six drop-in centres in Kabul, Aschiana currently
takes care of about 2,600 girls and boys between the ages of six and 16—a
small percentage of the working street kids in the city, estimated by the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to number 28,000.
This is not a regular school by any means. One can attend classes at any
time, before or after work, and the centre provides one simple meal each
day. Besides literacy and math, the curriculum includes basic knowledge
about different types of mines and other unexploded ammunition.
Occasionally, volunteers from various countries come and teach new,
unpredictable subjects. Camilla Barry, a San Francisco area science teacher,
appeared one day with a wonderfully funny method of teaching physics by such
means as balancing cardboard butterflies on kids’ noses. On another day,
Nick Putz, a circus arts teacher from London, led a workshop on juggling,
clowning and other circus skills.
I took a picture of the class with Mr. Atiq and spent the next week
following some of his students to work.
I went with Jamshidi and Faheem to the bazaar where they sell plastic bags;
with Azmarai to his job selling water at the bus stop; with Naweed to the
pond of sewage water where he washes cars; with Khanwali to the spot
downtown where he panhandles alongside his father, who is missing both legs;
with Mujtaba, who extracts from the ruins of the city combustible fragments
that her family uses for cooking; with Shakib to his shoe-polishing stand in
front of a government ministry; with Haroon, who burns incense in front of
restaurants and vendors’ stalls.
All of these children have their tiny niches in the city’s economy. Some
jobs are little more than excuses for begging, but they are socially
accepted and they make a difference to the survival of entire families.
Despite the incredible damage done to the city and its people, in Kabul
there are no homeless, dispossessed children as there are in other cities in
the developing world. There is, however, grinding poverty and
semi-homelessness of whole families, who live in ruins and shacks and who
have virtually no income.
Many of the children at Aschiana are too small for their age; all are too
mature for their years. They are reliable and smart but bruised by various
traumas. Some have little life experience beyond being war-zone kids.
Aschiana provides an environment where they find rudimentary self-esteem and
the chance to dream of a happier future. In their lives there is little time
to play, except on rare occasions when somebody like Camilla Barry or Nick
Putz passes through. The kids crave knowledge and attention and accept these
In return, they can only offer their curiosity—a fair exchange.
This story has been published in Maclean's, in July 2004 and in the Tyee in
February 2005. I’d like to thank several friends
who generously helped me to tell this story. Jane Mcelhone gave me shelter
and advice in Kabul. Shershah Zahir Ghory was my interpreter and guide. In
Vancouver, Mary Schendlinger and Sandra Shields edited this story as well as
my other essays and articles.