By Zubeida Mustafa
THERE is still hope for Pakistan. Paradoxically, it comes from the least expected of sources: the street children. Recently, their football team returned home from Oslo proudly bearing a bronze medal from the Norway Cup, the largest international youth football tournament.
It has been a meteoric rise for Pakistan which made its debut in the Street Child Football World Cup only last year in Rio to earn third place. These youngsters have grit and have managed to confront boldly the tragedy of their broken existence. Now they are rebuilding their lives.
One can understand the magnitude of their achievement only in the context of what life can be for children in a society hostile to them. The challenges are greater for the underprivileged. Denied satisfactory facilities for education, healthcare and sports while lacking support from a happy and stable family environment many of these children take the escape route to the streets. There they live uncared for, seeking security in a group of like-minded runaways. There are hundreds and thousands of them around and their ingenuity helps them survive on the charity of people seeking their own salvation. That is how they get meals to eat but no protection from the abuse and exploitation they suffer at the hands of unscrupulous adults.
The children who have brought laurels to the country that had rejected them have been lucky. They were rescued by some volunteers of the Azad Foundation that is committed, as its website announces, “to improving the well-being and enhancing the self-esteem of alienated and excluded sreet children”. Through love and support they have been reunified with their families.
The vulnerable child will seek the heady freedom of the streets.
And one may well ask what is the Azad Foundation? AF is the brainchild of some idealistic Karachi University alumni led by Naveed Hasan Khan, who dreamt of doing something for the children they saw loitering around in the streets.
Itfan Maqbool, head of policy and advocacy, who is also a co-founder, recalls how they proceeded to transform the lives of these unhappy children for whom the streets of Karachi had become a home.
A lot of research and thinking went into the making of the foundation, Maqbool tells me. The founders interacted with the children to explore the dynamics of their living and thus prioritised AF’s goals. There was also the need to win the confidence of the children by responding to their needs. That is how a mobile dispensary, a drop-in centre, a shelter, educational and vocational centres and ultimately football coaching camps came to be established incrementally. These projects brought healthcare, hygiene, midday meals, psychological counselling and even non-formal education in their wake. From Karachi, AF has moved on to form a network all over the country.
Today, the street children have much to look forward to as confirmed by Mehar Mustafa who is the son of a fisherman in Ibrahim Hyderi. “There was a time when my future was dark, as dark as the sea in the night when I accompanied my father on deep-sea fishing trips. Not so any more.” Today Mustafa has experienced the thrill of football in Rio, Chicago, Oslo and a 10-week stint of learning English in Cambridge. Now he has much to dream about.
Talking to Maqbool, I can see that the founders are educated and pragmatic. Their work is underpinned by deep research and they shift their goalposts as they learn from the studies they conduct and their own observation of the children. For AF a child who stays on the street for eight to nine hours unsupervised is a street child who must be re-integrated and rehabilitated. The record is not heartening because 50pc of the re-integrated become dropouts and run away again from home.
Today, AF knows that without a change in the conditions — poverty, lack of parental love, absence of functioning schools with sports to engage the youth — the vulnerable child will seek the heady freedom of the streets.
That is how football entered the scene. A key role played in organising the training camps is that of the senior coach, Abdur Rashid, who was at one time a member of the national football team.
The Foundation and the success of the football team have at long last focused public attention on the plight of the child. All children need special care and there are many organisations in Pakistan working to improve conditions for the young. But it took a world cup medal to show what children can achieve when provided love and opportunities.
Raziq Mushtaq, the football team captain, is a school dropout as his school never functioned. “I loved football. The streets became my playing field,” he says. Shouldn’t every child in Pakistan have a good school to study in with plenty of open space for games? Then many of our Raziqs will not be attracted to the streets.