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Last Updated: Friday, 17 November 2006, 10:18 GMT
Tehran homeless women find refuge
By Mojgan Tousi,
BBC Persian Service contributor, Tehran

Tehran women's shelter
The House of Compassion gives shelter 160 destitute women

Tucked away down a overgrown side street in one of Tehran's poorest districts is an ordinary-looking house with an extraordinary story.

This yellow brick building surrounded by high concrete walls and railings, is Tehran's only shelter for homeless women.

The House of Compassion, as it is known, is run by a charity and funded entirely by private donations

For its 160 clients, it is a tiny oasis in a city of 12 million people, where homeless people are an increasingly common sight.

The women who live in the House of Compassion range in age from 18 to 70. Many of them look much older than their years - a legacy of life on the street.

They include runaways, drug addicts and prostitutes. Many are suffering from severe mental health problems.

Suicide attempts

Facilities at the shelter are impressive. It's clean, the food is good, and a well equipped and staffed sick bay ensures that the residents have access to medical care.

Some of the residents come voluntarily, but many more are brought here by the police during their sweeps of Tehran's bus stations, parks and shrines.

Women's shelter in Tehran
Food and accommodation are relatively comfortable

Zohreh is 21, and spent much of her life in and out of children's homes before she started sleeping rough.

She's already made several suicide attempts. The latest one was just days ago.

"I want to get out here," she says, "I want to live my life, go shopping and go to the park with my friends."

The house rules say that women brought in by the police, cannot leave unless their families take them back.

Tendons severed

When the weather is good the women like to congregate in the garden at the back of the house.

They sit warming themselves in the sun, sipping tea, many of them talk endlessly about their past lives.

Women's shelter in Tehran
Some of the women are reluctant to leave this haven of safety

Often the narratives are as confused and broken as the women themselves.

Farkhondeh is 52, and has just been brought in by the police. She's painfully thin, with hardly any teeth left.

Her face is clouded by the shadows of drug addiction. When she holds up her hands, her fingers are permanently clenched - the tendons in her wrist have been severed by repeated suicide attempts.

"I'm not a homeless person," she insists. "I just look like this because they cut my hair and gave me these clothes to wear. Why am I here with all these crazy people."

Farkondeh says she was born into a privileged family and had a good education. But like many of the women in the shelter, her life seems to have been ruined by drugs and a bad marriage.

"I'm so sad about my life. I didn't use to be like this. I used to be so much better."

Rogiyeh who is 45, has also been let down by the men in her life. When she was 23 she got pregnant. Her fiance abandoned her and she had an abortion.

"I was in love with him," she says. "If I'd had the baby it would have been 25 by now".

Many of the women say they have children, but lost contact with them after getting divorced.

It's a familiar story in a country where custody laws are heavily stacked in favour of the father, who is usually given all children over seven.

Training courses

Forty-five year old Fatemeh's case is typical: "My children are with their father," she says bleakly. "He divorced me and got married again. They are with him. I don't know why."

Women's shelter in Tehran
Women at the shelter are between the ages of 18 and 70

Staff at the shelter have tried to help the women turn their lives around by organising training courses and teaching them new skills.

But so far they've met with little success. For many of the residents, it's just too late to make a new start.

There are women in the House of Compassion who have been living here for nearly 10 years. They like the company and the security that the shelter provides.

They like it when the staff take them on outings to the city. And they would love it if someone could buy them a tape recorder so they could have some music.

Despite all the sadness in their lives not everyone has lost the capacity to feel happy sometimes.

"Look," says Zohreh, who in another life was an accountant with a husband and two children, "If I feel like dancing then you know what - I'm going to dance."






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