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Middle East Andrew Dispatch

Tired of School? Here's an Alternative: The Street Children of Ankara
March 22, 2000

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Hey kids! Tired of school? Fed up with homework? Had enough of books, reports and all that gosh-darned awful stuff you have to do day in and day out? Yeah? Well, hold that thought for a moment while I introduce you to two young fellows I met today.

Vedat is 12 years old. When he grows up, he wants to be a soccer player (football to non-North Americans). He likes to hang out with friends and spend time with his six siblings (three brothers and three sisters), and he's just learning how to play chess.

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Esat is 14 years old, and he'd like to be a teacher (grade school) when he's older. Esat has four brothers and three sisters, and he, like his friend Vedat, likes to hang around with his friends, play soccer and just enjoy being a kid.

The twist that you know is coming is that, sadly, these two handsome young men are each in a situation that makes it difficult to enjoy very much at all. They are two of the thousands of young people-mostly boys-as young as (and occasionally younger than) five years old, working on the streets of Ankara, Turkey.

It's a cruel life in many respects. Both boys have the same job: they work at the outdoor bazaar, which is located about 30 minutes from their home. Their job is to wait and watch for people who buy things at the bazaar that are too heavy or burdensome for them to carry themselves. Vedat and Esat then transport the items in home-made carts from the bazaar to the home of the buyer. They do this in all kinds of weather. Today in Ankara it was below freezing-snow and ice covered the ground-and these boys were outside all day long.

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Still think you want to leave the relative comfort of your school desk? OK, you could choose another job from the many practiced by children on the streets of Ankara. Shining shoes, picking up scraps of paper to re-sell, selling handkerchiefs, sesame seed-covered bread, tissues or razors-in fact, selling just about anything that can be carried. And I'm only talking about the 'nice' jobs that children on the street perform…

Esat works about 16 hours a day, and Vesat works 13 hours a day. Both work seven days a week. They earn very little, and what they do earn goes directly to their parents to cover their own expenses. Does it sound better than going to your school?

Both of these boys are bright and motivated and would love to be in school. Both have gone to school in the past and can read and write somewhat. Vedat doesn't go to school now, but he did for two years when he was eight. Esat went to school for five years, but also had to give it up to help support himself and his family.

I met these two guys, and many more energetic young people, at the Center for Children Working on the Streets of Ankara (CCWSA). Located on the first floor of a parking garage, this foundation, started in 1993, is open seven days a week and provides a safe haven where children can come off of the streets into a safe environment, get a hot meal and, it is hoped, get assistance to bring them back to school and off the streets.

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The long-term goals of the CCWSA are to minimize and stop child labor. The short-term goals include educating children and parents about the risks and dangers to children of working on the streets, and trying to motivate kids to choose school rather than work. But this isn't always easy since the long-term benefits of school aren't always as obvious as the short-term benefit of work. After a day of toil, you can buy some bread. A day of study and what have you to show for it? Nothing! At least, that's the way some people look at it.

Why do you suppose some people see it that way? Well, I've already mentioned that families just plain need the money. But is that all? Let's delve a bit into their lifestyles. The overwhelming majority of these boys live with their families in shanty towns. A shanty town is a squatters' community that springs up in an area that used to have no houses. It's normally riddled with disease, poverty and a sense of hopelessness. The people who live there usually are from the countryside, and have come to the city to improve their lives and the lives of their children. The general level of education is quite low. The philosophy of the community is that, if you're old enough to walk and carry a bucket, you're old enough to work and earn your keep.

While girls are less frequently seen working on the streets than boys (though more girls can be seen begging), this may have more to do with Turkey's predominantly Muslim culture, which frowns upon girls working outside the home. Boys certainly are encouraged and even required to go forth and earn their share of the household expenses. In this mindset, time wasted in school is time lost working on the streets.


squatter - one who settles on land without the right
destitute - poor
malnourished - sick from not enough food
predominantly - mostly
imminent - near, looming

Still, it may not be that simple. Many parents sincerely want their children to go to school, become educated and excel in areas that they otherwise would never reach. But they simply need the money that the kids bring home to sustain the family. Not only that, but in Turkey, as in most countries of the world, school isn't free like it is in the U.S. of A., and students have to pay for their own uniforms, books and materials. So not only does going to school take away an income-it's also a financial drain. CCWSA helps with that in many cases by paying for some or all of school-related expenses.

Who can use the CCWSA? Anyone who chooses, up to age 14 (though sometimes children a bit older are kept on, provided they started with the Center at the appropriate age). But the CCWSA is an organization aimed at helping children who work and who haven't lost touch with their families. It's not a center for destitute children, but for those who have homes and families and who also have jobs. So who cares for those children who have no home or family? "Another organization," says Osman Bilgin, director of the CCWSA. "Our focus is what we call 'street children with families,' which we distinguish from 'beggar children,' who live on their own. While all children are welcome to use our facilities, we usually only have dealings with our target group."

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Indeed, it's a very difficult situation. The streets are full of violence. Long working hours and unsanitary working conditions add to the problems of the children, most of whom are malnourished and fatigued. There is little joy in their lives. Most have a very low opinion of themselves, and violence is the solution to most of the problems around them. But let's look at some of the programs the CCWSA runs that offer these kids some comfort. There are sports programs, which the children love. They learn judo, karate, and other forms of self-defense in hopes of gaining self confidence and a sense of worth. There are also theater groups, which organize performances at local cultural centers, computer classes, a library with homework help, chess lessons and other activities. The CCWSA hopes these programs will help build kids into more responsible, confident and ethical young people.

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Osman Bilgin told me that the biggest challenge of the program is…everything. The work itself is hard because of the severe and imminent problems of the children. The people who work with them must work professionally, but not allow themselves to lose their amateur spirit. They must try to "love the children and understand their ignorant families" (ignorant, remember, does NOT mean stupid: it means uneducated).

I know that those of you reading our dispatches are aware of and concerned with the world and the people in it, so I hope you enjoy hearing about people your age who live lives quite distinct from your own. And the next time you have to study for a killer math test, remember how lucky you are to have the chance to do so.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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