February 23, 2009
Children labor through an Afghan winter
By Edrees Kakar
Senior Reporter, Youth Journalism International
KABUL, Afghanistan – In the foggy, frozen air, three children walked around a public park in Kabul one recent winter evening, carrying boxes of Lay’s potato chips.
The boys, 12-year-old Hamid, his eight-year-old brother Shoaib and their friend, Nabi, 13, were trying to sell the snacks to help their families survive.
Edrees Kakar/Youth Journalism International
After finishing school each day, they come to Qargha Lake, a popular park, to sell their goods.
“We are very poor people and the income of my father is not enough as we have got lots of problems, so that is why I come here every day to sell chips and earn money to support my family and studies,” said Hamid.
On a cold January day, the hills and mountains around Kabul were dressed with snow as the boys offered their wares at Qargha Lake.
The park is open year round. In summer, the hills are green and the place is filled with people. Families come to swim, boat, and picnic, and hundreds of children sell goods or services, trying to earn a living.
On that recent snowy winter evening – a Friday when most Afghans aren’t working – there were comparably fewer people visiting the park. But some did come to enjoy the snow, sightsee, take photos or eat fish in the nearby restaurants.
Besides Hamid, Shoaib and Nabi, other children worked in the park that day, preparing fish for customers or selling cigarettes.
Hamid, Shoaib and Nabi said they are at the park every day throughout the year, trying to earn money for their families.
Standing just near the frozen lake, Hamid said that on Fridays, which are the busiest days at the park, he is able to make 150AF, or Afghani, the national currency – about $3 in U.S. dollars. On other days, he said, his income is usually less than 100AF, or less than $2 in U.S. currency.
The difference between those incomes is significant in Afghanistan, where for the average laborer, $1 U.S. dollar represents a day’s work.
These boys have a lot of company. Thousands of children in Afghanistan work to help support their families. Not all of them attend school like these three, because some children are busy simply working as laborers or selling goods to support their families.
Hamid’s English is surprisingly good. It’s exceptional to find a child speaking fluent English at his age in Afghanistan, but Hamid was able to be interviewed in English.
Part of what he earns goes to pay Hamid’s school fees for courses like English or computers. While there is free public education in Afghanistan for both boys and girls, students who want to take English or computer classes must do so at a private school and pay tuition there.
As the elder son of his family, Hamid feels the responsibility to work to support his family alongside his father and his little brother.
Asked about his desired career in the future, Hamid answered with great confidence. His dream, though unaffordable given his current circumstances, is to be either a doctor or an engineer.
Talented Hamid is but one example of thousands of Afghan kids like him who are spending their childhood as laborers. He hardly has time to study, and many others can’t even think of studying as they are too busy looking after their livelihood.
Though all children deserve the basic human rights of security, education and good food, Hamid’s family is struggling. With their low income, according to Hamid, they are hardly managing to survive.
His father, Hamid said, works as a fish seller at Qargha Lake, but he doesn’t earn enough to support the family.
They live near the park, which is in a neighborhood with some homes made of clay, where mostly poor or displaced people from other areas of the country have found shelter.
Afghanistan’s people have paid a heavy price for 30 years of war – millions of citizens killed, disabled or displaced; infrastructure damaged; the economy in ruins; the poverty rate high and, at least until the Taliban lost power, education out of reach for most.
All of that combined makes life hard here, and winter is the harshest time of all.
The cold and snow sends temperatures plunging to -25C (about -13F) and makes an already difficult life intolerable for average Afghans.
Heavy snowfalls blocks highways and transportation routes in the mountains, preventing vehicles and even horses and donkeys from getting through.
The impassable roads lead to shortages of food, energy and medical supplies, putting lives in danger in the most remote provinces.
According to the Health Ministry of Afghanistan, almost six million people are vulnerable, most of them children.
International humanitarian agencies, including the United Nations, try to help, but still there are many in need.
With an income of about $1 U.S. dollar a day, average Afghans find it difficult if not impossible to pay for the cost of fuel, wood or gas to heat their homes. Many simply lack the most basic clothes to keep them warm.
Despite international involvement, people here remain frustrated and some complain that foreign involvement is more about political gain than rebuilding Afghanistan.
Hamid said he is not pleased with the current government because there is no peace and the living conditions of the people are very poor.
“I want from international community to focus on the kids of our country,” Hamid said. “People must have good economy and international community must help the poor.”
Three boys in Kabul - Pictures by Edrees Kakar
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