By Azam Gorgin/Charles Recknagel
Recent reports in the Iranian press that 100 to 150 of the country’s street children die each month have shed new light on the plight of small children who are forced to work on the streets. In the second of a two-part series on Iran’s street children, RFE/RL correspondent Azam Gorgin tells how one charitable group tries to aid the children.
Prague, 7 December 2000 (RFE/RL) — Iran’s street children get little help from the government, but they can come to centers run by a handful of charitable organizations.
The most active is the Society for Protecting Rights of the Child, or SPRC, which has a program for some 300 street children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods of southern Tehran.
Mahvash Taghavi of the society told our correspondent that the group offers the street children a free meal once a week. That is always on Fridays because the children’s’ parents or other adults who control them force them to work the rest of the week. Taghavi says:
"These children are put to work by their parents and they do not come to the center the other days of the week. But we are trying to establish a file for them and trying to find out about the background of these kids." Taghavi says the street children come to the center hungry. The center’s volunteers feed them and then try to train them in the rudiments of hygiene and to provide them with elementary school materials, such as notebooks and pencils.
Another SPRC member, Shirley Najafi says that the group used to go out to look for the children and bring them to the center. But now, she says, the children mostly come by themselves.
"We used to collect them and find their homes, and organize classes for them, but now they come to us. At times these kids have not eaten for more than two days. And they really appreciate everything we can give them. The kindness they see from our social workers — in some cases they have not experienced any respect or kindness before in their lives. So, they are attracted."
But the SPRC’s staff says that their resources for helping the street children are very limited. The group is allowed to use two classrooms in a state-run vocational school, but it depends mostly on contributions from well-meaning individuals. Founded five years ago, the society is run by seven managers, plus volunteers.
Our correspondent asked Najafi if the SPRC has also sought help from groups abroad. She said:
No, but friends of the society who are living abroad — people who have heard somebody recommend us, or who have received our news bulletin — try to give us something. We started this seven months ago, but nothing substantial has been received yet. Until now, we have only utilized aid from what we receive daily from people."
Those who work with the street children say they hope one day to also receive financial help from the Iranian government. But so far, official interest in the street children has mainly been confined to trying to curb petty crime.
The government funds reformatories — known as "Green Houses" — which hold youngsters, street children and others, who have committed crimes or misdemeanors. The daily newspaper "Iran" reported recently that Tehran authorities operate five such houses and are preparing 17 more.
In the Green Houses, the children undergo therapy with psychologists and most are then sent to their parents. But once the children return to the street, they often go back to petty crime, repeating the cycle.
Najafi says part of the problem she faces is raising public awareness about the street children, a first step to getting the government and other agencies to solve the crisis.
"Unfortunately, nothing fundamental has been done about this in Iran. There are no accurate statistics and there are only individual efforts, not a widespread effort. When we started SPRC, we thought of aiding 30 to 40 kids but now there are 300 in this vocational center."
Najafi says that her society wants to build a house for street children but that this requires funding which is beyond the means of small groups such as the SPRC. She says that government authorities must also participate in a collective effort to help keep, educate and train the street children if they are ever to have a normal life.