Street Children Beg for Livelihood in Baku
Fagan lives in the Bileceri district with his mother and brothers. He didn't want to say how much he earns in a day, but whispers that he has to pay out half of this money as 'protection' for working on the street. His story is more common than ever. In Soviet times, to call someone a "street child" amounted to an insulting exaggeration. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, it has become more and more a descriptive term. According to UNICEF, which has been researching Baku street children since 1996, 47 percent of the capital's homeless youth are orphans, a third have only one parent, and only one in five came from two-parent households.
Nigar Mansimli founded the "Umid Yeri" (Place of Hope) home for street children in 1997. She says that many street children are refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh war of the early 1990s. Mamed, 10, says he was a baby when he became a refugee. "I lost my father in the war, and my mother is ill. Now I am begging for money," he says. Though Mamed lives in a hostel, he still begs in order to pay for food.
Even children with shelter beg for cash. "The main reason forcing children to go on to the streets is that they need money for their daily bread," says Tamilla Zeynalova, chairperson of the Children's Committee of the Helsinki Commission for Human Rights in Azerbaijan.
Street children often have found themselves suddenly responsible for ensuring their own survival. Ilaha, 13, and Samir, 9, came to Umid Yeri claiming that their mother had died. "At first we didn't believe them, but we went with them to the basement where they live and found their mother's body," says Farida Najafzadeh, the group's vice chairperson, "Can you imagine the condition of these children, sleeping in a box where hens laid their eggs?" Najafzadeh says that the dead woman appeared to have been beaten to death. Her children had no idea who killed her, she says.
Another child, Zarifa, lived in the streets with her mother before coming to Umid Yeri. "My father's relatives put us out of the house after his death," Zarifa says. "She says her mother is in Turkey now. "She will come," she says. "She has no money to come now, but she calls me often."
Mansimli says she founded Umid Yeri so that the street children could have a transitional place for social and psychological support. "Fifty children can live in this house," Mansimli says, adding that the home began by housing only two children. "When we started we walked the streets at night and talked to the street children. Sometimes they agreed to come here, and sometimes not. But now every street child in Baku knows about this place, and comes here to eat and wash," she says. The home cannot accommodate all the city's street children, says the director and some decline to live there.
Beggars often have no other moneymaking skill. Kamala Aghayeva, who researches social conditions at the Azerbaijan Children's, says street children need special schools and intensive attention. "The government is responsible for this work," she says. Dr. Tamara Dadashova chairs a childcare organization called "Sorge" (German for "care") and heads the Hematology Department in the Republic Children's Hospital. She sees social problems driving children to the streets. "When both parents cannot find a job they send their child to the streets to earn money," she says.
But the state's weak public health system also hurts the children, Dr. Dadashova says. "The street children who earn money washing old cars can inhale toxic fumes," she explains, adding that she thinks there is a greater incidence of blood diseases among the street kids. Other childcare specialists tend to agree, adding the more common health risks, such as cold winter weather. "How we can speak about the health of these children when they can't wear jackets in the winter?" Aghayeva says. The state receives aid from many sources, but the presence of 700,000 refugees stretches this aid very thin.
Some adults who control gangs of street children, calling themselves "uncles," also intercept kids who might otherwise seek help. According to Aghayeva, adults "use the street children for collecting money" and keep them in cellars and other hideaways. "People who lead the children know that [some]one will give money when a child begs," she says. They also know that children will depend on them. "[One boy] said his so-called 'uncle' has a Mercedes and they have a group in the airport where they beg for money," Aghayeva says.
Children also reportedly pay protection to their uncles from what they collect at transit stations. The adults frighten children from revealing information, says Aghayeva. "When we were talking to them they were scared to speak out, and nervously looked around from side to side."
As children grow up on the streets, pathologies develop. Zeynalova of the Helsinki Commission says that a new, criminal generation is growing up in Azerbaijan. "They will take revenge on society which is indifferent to their life," she warns, adding that the street is a good training ground for criminal gangs. "There are a lot of thieves and drug addicts among the street children."
Increasingly, workers also hear reports of rape and sexual abuse. "Sometimes we see beaten and raped children among those who came to the Helsinki office," says Zeynalova. "There are big men who rape children. And girls say that street 'protectors' rape them too." Aghayeva says she met two teenage girls pretending to be mutes at a Metro station. After addressing the girls, she says she found out they were rape victims carrying out a con for $3.
Aghayeva calls for urgent action, including the setting up of a state committee, to solve the problems facing street children. For now, though, even tabulating the number of street children is difficult because children often refuse to answer questions.
Konul Khalilova is a freelance journalist based in Baku.