A football programme has helped Pakistani children leave behind a life of drugs and beatings. Former street children Meher, Rajab and Awais speak here about how they turned their lives around through the British Council's DOSTI project (Developing and Organising Social Transformation Initiatives -- the acronym means 'friendship' in Urdu).
Tell us about your life before you got involved with the DOSTI project.
Meher: I was just, you know, wandering here and there. My father would drag me to work, and all day I would just work or play football. Then one day my father burnt my football shoes and my brother beat me up. I ran away from home for about one or two weeks, and when I came back, I met Coach Rashid. He introduced me to the Azad Foundation and DOSTI and they told me that in Brazil there was a Street Child World Cup which I could take part in [the contest took place in March-April 2014]. I got through the trial by the grace of God, played in the tournament, and well, now I am here. (emotional now) Now I have got a good reputation.
Rajab: I stitched and embroidered burqas. I would work on making one burqa and then I would go do a bit of drugs. There was fighting and screaming at home, so that's why I was always out and wouldn’t go home. Many times I got burnt with an iron at work, but still my family would forcibly say ‘go and work’. At school there were some issues and problems too. So I wasn’t studying in school and eventually, I wasn’t even working. I would keep getting into fights, and I was always out of the house.
Then I met Coach Rashid [Abdul Rashid, coach for Street Child World Cup], who introduced me to football and told me about the Street Child World Cup Brazil. At first I just didn’t believe it. I didn’t know there were organisations like Azad and projects like DOSTI, and that there were still good people present in Karachi. I went to their office and I saw how they treated us like their own children. They would speak to us nicely, and that was when I realised that yes, this is real.
Awais: When I was living at home, whenever I would do anything wrong I would get scolded or beaten. So I ran away from home. I lived on the street for approximately two to three years. I did odd jobs like gathering aluminium tins, cleaning cars, and working at some hotels. Then I started going to the Azad Foundation and began playing football. I learnt by practising, and people from the DOSTI project explained that if you play well and maintain discipline, you can get ahead in life. I lived at the Azad Foundation Rehabilitation centre, and began my education. I enrolled in class and moved back home about a year ago. Everything is good now. I have another brother and it's nice. When I came back, there were issues at first, but not any more. My mother has begun to understand me. She used to think that I was hopeless and that I would amount to nothing, but now, because of my behaviour, even she is amazed, and she says everyone else is too. I used to be very quiet and didn’t have any friends in the community. Now people say, 'He used to be so quiet. We never imagined that he could do something so big.'
How has football helped you?
Meher: Football basically keeps you away from everything bad, like drugs, chewing tobacco, cigarettes and stuff.
Rajab: More than 20 people can play with just one football. To me, it unites people more than any other sport.
Awais: Like Rajab said, we can communicate and talk with each other and get comfortable with each other through football. We went to Brazil together because of football. And we got the chance to meet so many children from different countries of the world when we were there. We figured out how to talk to them and understand them. We always hear about what people from different countries are like, but because of football, we got to experience it ourselves.
What was going to the Street Child World Cup like?
Awais: Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that we would go to such an incredible place. I didn’t even know there was a country called Brazil a few years ago!
When we were preparing to go, we faced many problems, because we didn’t have birth certificates or identification documents. Some kids didn’t have any form of ID whatsoever, as if they didn’t exist. This created a lot of issues with getting passports. The officials said I was Bengali and that Rajab was Afghani. My mother and Rajab's parents went to get this corrected, and they kept asking for proof that we were Urdu-speaking, and asking my mother what dishes she cooked. My mother told them that if you want to eat our traditional dishes, tell me and I’ll cook and bring it here. That convinced them.
Even beyond that, there were many issues. Our passports were made, and we applied for visas. But till the last day before we flew, we didn’t know whether we’d be able to go or not. When we sat on the plane and it took off, that was the first moment we knew for sure that, yes, this is happening. Rajab is so sensitive anyway, you know. Even when we were coming to speak to you to do this interview, he was up all night saying ‘oh, what are we going to talk about, what are we going to say?’ So you can imagine, he was extra worried before leaving for Brazil.
Anyway, we went to Brazil, and for the first two days we were so overwhelmed. We couldn’t understand anything because it was a new place, with new people. I felt like I was swimming, sort of swaying even while I was in one place, after such a long journey on the plane. Once we got over the plane journey, they welcomed us so warmly and in such a grand way.
The next day, issues emerged around trying to communicate and talk with others. For a couple of days, we were confused about what to do, but slowly we began speaking broken English (laughs) and I spoke to people. And then we all just sort of threw ourselves into it. We thought, we’ll figure it out somehow, but we need to make friends. And seriously, after the initial language hiccup, it didn’t feel like we were from different countries. Children from about 20 countries were there, but it didn’t feel like we were different. Especially the USA and India teams, who were always with us. We shared one hall, so it didn’t feel like we were strangers. We were all dancing and singing together, and having a lot of fun. We would practise together: they would practise with us, and we would practise with them. So we kept making friends.
During the last days we were there, all of us were sitting on the ground, thinking about the fact that tomorrow we’d all go our separate ways. We could barely tell that 12 days had passed so quickly. And some of us started crying while sitting there.
The next day we played in our match with the USA to win third position, and we watched the final too. It was really good, so much fun. We still remember it, and still miss it sometimes when we think about it. When we returned to Karachi, we kept feeling, 'did we go to Brazil? Really, did we really go there?' We would talk to each and say, 'it doesn’t seem like we ever went there'. When we were sitting in the bus to go back to the airport in Brazil, one or the other of us would be found crying in a corner. But we exchanged gifts; the organisers gave us some things as a memory, like books.
After we came back to Karachi, we got involved in a campaign to travel throughout Pakistan and teach other Pakistani kids what we had learnt at the Street Child World Cup. We went to 11 cities, met other children, learnt about their problems, and told them about our problems and how we overcame them. Our main aim was to make the other children realise that they are important too. This was the continuation of the Street Child World Cup slogan ‘I am somebody’, which we adopted when we went to Brazil. Sport can change lives because it wipes out negativity from a person’s mind. We told the children that they are something, and they can also make something out of themselves. We encouraged them to make the most of any opportunities that they get in life, and have confidence in themselves.
We went to the Pakistan Assembly, where we voiced our concern about having a policy for street children. Children living on the streets have several problems with food, housing, and health. We talked about having facilities for them such as shelter homes where they could stay. This was the first time that this sort of issue had been raised in the Pakistani Assembly, and the policy was approved and signed off by the Speaker of the Assembly, which made us extremely happy. God willing, there will be developments in this regard and people will step up and help. Pakistan has welcomed and responded to us really well, and we have been shown affection and love by every city in Pakistan. Everywhere we went we were shown a lot of care and respect. We just want to ensure that children such as ourselves are understood.
No doubt the Street Child World Cup has changed your life, but what are your plans once the hype dies down?
Awais: First and foremost is education. We realised that education was extremely important when we went to Brazil, but could not communicate because we did not speak any English. Had we been educated, we would have been able to talk effectively. Other than that, there is football. Some of us are going to England to improve our skills, and there are some coaches from England who will be visiting Pakistan to train us.
Rajab: I plan to get educated. Then I need to work hard and improve my football skills so that I can make it to the Pakistani national team and make Pakistan proud.
Meher: I want to get educated too. I also want to continue to work for street children like myself, and I also wish to play international football for the Pakistani national team.
What message would you give other children trying to get away from the streets to a new life?
Meher: We'd tell them that if you cannot get educated, then at least get involved in sports; be it any sport. This way they won’t get involved in the negative activities going on. There are many children in my neighbourhood who are uneducated and intoxicated all the time. I tell them that I am just like them. I am uneducated. But I want to start my education and help other children who are out on the streets. If you have a thirst for knowledge, a better life will follow.
Rajab: Everybody gets an opportunity in life and when you do, grab that opportunity and don’t hesitate. God has not created anyone without talent. If you have something, make use of it and progress in life.
When you meet runaway, troubled or out-of-school children now what do you say to them?
Meher: I just want to say that more organisations should come in to help street children. In this sweltering heat, children cannot stay inside their houses, so they leave and live on the roads in worse conditions. Somebody should help them. If organisations are unable to build more shelter homes, then the government authorities should step in and help out. If we are able to do this, Pakistan will go a long way.
Rajab: On our way here, we saw three kids. They were wandering here and there, and when we asked them, ‘Where are you going?’ they replied ‘To earn.’ We appeal to the government and other institutions to open schools for underprivileged children, give them grounds to play, provide them with education and take care of them, just like the Azad Foundation, which cares for us like we are their own. We are really thankful to them.
Awais: I appeal to the people of Pakistan to help these street children. There are so many children on the roads that clean cars at signals for a living. People get their cars cleaned from them, or push them away. Some children polish shoes, and people happily get their shoes polished and leave. Nobody asks them why they are out of their house, or why they are polishing shoes at such a tender age. Some children are so young that they do not even understand what’s going on. Nobody thinks about them. There should be institutions that provide counselling, to not only such children, but their parents as well.
Meher, Rajab, Awais and other children in DOSTI are planning to travel to Europe next month to take part in further contests and training. The British Council's DOSTI project is active in eight locations or 'centres' in Karachi, targeting 12-18-year-old school-going and community youth. It is implemented by foundations, schools and community organisations with British Council support. The project helps young people and those living in high-conflict zones not only through sport, but also through courses on self-esteem, conflict resolution, substance misuse awareness, life skills, preparation for employment and re-integration into communities. In addition, there are targeted initiatives for groups that need extra support, e.g., young women and their mothers (since most parents are wary of letting their daughters venture outside the house alone).
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