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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 April, 2005, 23:55 GMT 00:55 UK
Kabul street children may lose 'nest'
By Tom Coghlan in Kabul

Children at the Aschiana centre, Kabul
Many of Aschiana's children lost their parents in the wars
Afghanistan's internationally renowned charity for street children, Aschiana, survived the Afghan wars of the 1990s and the Taleban era.

However, the free market economics of Kabul's post-war boom now seem a more potent enemy than rockets and bombs.

Aschiana, which means "the nest" and provides support, food, education and a refuge to 10,000 street children, faces the closure of its main centre in Kabul.

It is the victim of rocketing rents and land prices rather than artillery.

This will be a shame on the international community and the government of Afghanistan if we have to abandon the children now
Engineer Mohammed Yousef
Aschiana founder

The charity's compound on Char Rahi Malik Asghar, which it has occupied since 1997, has been sold by its owner to an international company.

A five-star hotel will be built on the site.

Kabul is a city in the grip of a housing boom that has seen the price of real estate soar to levels comparable with Western cities.

The three-acre Aschiana plot, close to the main government ministries, is believed to be worth around $5m.

Working children

A small class of wealthy Afghan entrepreneurs and international companies have been the prime beneficiaries of the boom.

Drawings by children at the Aschiana centre, Kabul
Drawings by children are sold to help the youngsters and Aschiana

"Our rent for this site was $1,500 a month," says Aschiana's director and founder, Engineer Mohammed Yousef.

"We have been looking for alternative sites but rents in the centre of the city are too expensive now."

Much smaller sites further from the city centre, where most of the street children gravitate, now cost around $10,000 a month in rent.

Kabul has about 50,000 children working on its streets.

Many lost their parents during Afghanistan's 24-year conflict and they are often to be seen banded together and scavenging through rubbish.

Many make a meagre living polishing shoes or selling water, chewing gum or newspapers to drivers at busy junctions.

They often show the tell-tale, disfiguring scars of leishmaniasis, a parasitic skin infection which is transmitted by sandflies and commonly affects those who live on the streets.

As well as sexual abuse and domestic violence, children at the centre have often suffered high levels of psychological trauma during the wars.

Trees felled

The early lives of many of the street children were dominated by the protracted siege of Kabul in the 1990s when random rocketing and gunfire by various militias killed an estimated 20,000 civilians.

Today children at the centre are still engaged in classes in art, music, dance, computing, sport and basic literacy.

Children at the Aschiana centre, Kabul
Dress-making is one of the classes that Aschiana offers

"I don't want to tell the children that we are closing," says Engineer Yousef, above the sound of chainsaws.

Workmen have arrived to begin felling the trees in the courtyard where the children play games.

In a classroom learning mathematics, an 11-year-old boy called Hamed says his ambition is to become a doctor.

Previously, he was a refugee in Pakistan where his family fled after the death of his father.

Hamed says he makes 50 Afghans a day, the equivalent of $1, selling bottles of water on the street before coming to the Aschiana centre.

He hopes to progress enough in his studies to go to a normal school.

A total of 661 children from Aschiana's centres were reintegrated into normal schooling last month.

In a classroom of 30 girls studying basic literacy, the walls are adorned with posters of different mines and cluster bombs.

Next door a class of girls is learning dress-making while in another part of the compound children practise still-life drawing.

Voracious market

The children come in during the day in shifts to maximise the number benefiting.

Children at the Aschiana centre, Kabul
The children are the nation's future, says Aschiana

Aschiana is famed for its art and music. Many of the pictures painted by the children are sold, with half the money going to the artist and half to help fund the charity.

In the centre's music room, professional musicians are taking raucous singing classes with the children before heading off to earn their living at weddings and parties in the evenings.

Aschiana's director is certain the main centre for 800 children will close at the end of June.

Another of Aschiana's six centres in Kabul, this one for 400 children, is also closing because of rent.

The charity relies on a mixture of money from the European Community, World Bank and numerous smaller donors such as the British charity Friends of Aschiana.

Last year, Aschiana survived on $3 per child, per month.

With Kabul's voracious housing market making it ever harder for such organisations to function, that amount looks likely to drop further.

In a rare expression of his frustration, Engineer Yousef says: "Despite the problems that were faced during the Taleban era, Aschiana managed to continue to function.

"This will be a shame on the international community and the government of Afghanistan if we have to abandon the children now.

"The international community has said it is here to help Afghanistan and its people to a better future. The children of Afghanistan are that future."

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