Kabul – Those who Survive on Afghan Streets

Ni'mat, the shoe polisher

Ni’mat, the shoe polisher

The decades of wars in Afghanistan have left scars on Afghan community. Victims of wars are still visible on busy Kabul streets. War widows and orphaned children beg for donations from the crowds, and poor children
also have to work instead of getting access to proper education. The economy disparity causes many people are still not adsorbed into proper occupation. If a father does not make enough money to support his big family, which is very common in Afghanistan, then young children have to start to earn for living.

Ni’mat is an 11 year old boy. His name in Arabic means mercy, but his life is not quite a mercy. At this early age, he has to work on streets as shoe polisher. He started this work a year ago, and now he has more responsibilities. His mother does not work, as most women in Afghanistan. His father used to be street worker, hanging around on the street to offer his muscle power. But then, last month, his father got accident because stepped on landmines and stay at home just like his mother. Ni’mat, a cheerful boy, said that he also goes to school in the morning and work after school. This shoe polishing business of course is not money making, especiall as it is done part-time. Ni’mat only earns Af 50 (US$ 1) in one day. Despite of that, his bright smiles always decorate his face.

Ni’mat is one among thousands of similar stories you can find around Kabul bazaars. Here you can see young children work hard to support their family, from shoe polishers until tissue sellers, from beggars until garbage pickers. Some makes very good money, but most of them are very pitiful.

Pain, disguised in smiles

Pain, disguised in smiles

On a pedestrian street in front of busy shops, a girl of less than 6 years old is laying. She is barely clothed; just lay on ground where thousands pairs of feet passing around her everyday, but only some of those pairs of legs stopped to see something that is very ordinary in Kabul. She does not have anything but a little white ball and dirty clothes. She does not have any other ambition but to lay down and showing her bright smile. It is very difficult to understand what is in her mind. Why is that bright smile? So bright that it makes heart of any people noticing crying. Does she live in another world and those thousands pairs of legs at the other one? She really has nothing but that ball and that smile. Even when she received a 2-Af coin, it seemed that it was not the thing she was waiting for. She put the coin in her mouth and chewed it as it was a bubble gum.

The sight of Kabul children, some of them even are still babies, laying on the streets unnoticed, is such a common sight in the capital. Busy people just pass by without so much attention. Or they also have too much problems in their life and there is not enough space left anymore in the mind to give attention to a problem so obvious to a war-torn land?

Dreaming of tomorrow

Dreaming of tomorrow

Just a contrast to that scene, at this very afternoon, I was invited by a friend who works in a United Nation agency to have a dinner in a UN dormitory. The dormitory was secured by huge number of security guards holding AK-47. Maybe because this was the place where the most important expats in Kabul live, and this organization is also target of terror of various movements in the country. I learned that a meal in a dinner here cost 6 Dollars, that’s about Ni’mat’s one week income. A night in the dormitory cost US$46, much more than what Ni’mat can earn in a week. A UN worker can earn thousands of dollars in a month. I think Ni’mat even cannot count anymore how many years he can earn that amount of money.

A totally different world, just a wall away from the street children's life

A totally different world, just a wall away from the street children’s life

So this is the contrast. UN existence is very important in unstable Afghanistan and we cannot imagine how this country would be without those United Nations agencies right after the decades of wars. But as we all may already know that the operational cost of UN in Afghanistan is very high, roughly less than half of the budget goes to the community. This high cost is for the salary of the international workers including their risk coverage insurance, the high profile security procedures as the organization often becomes terrorist target, and of course high quality of facility provided to the workers: the good quality of food, the healthy mineral water so the workers are not infected by the bacteria from tap water, as well as fresh fruits should be ready on the tables all time. I cannot imagine how his reaction will be if we bring Ni’mat to come here to see the ‘social workers’ serving for ‘humanity’ in his homeland. But I think also many of the NGO and UN workers have never learned directly the suffering of street children, little citizen, like Nikmat, as their access to public places is strictly limited to guarantee their safety. Moreover, it’s because Afghanistan is full of those street children, suffering, war victims, poverty, death, tragic stories, etc that makes this country becomes a huge opportunity and sexy destination for those humanitarian workers, and thus give them the chance to earn such high salary.

Two worlds are rotating in parallel, in Kabul.

6 Comments on Kabul – Those who Survive on Afghan Streets

  1. Good post. Yes I used to think the same in India. “How can they just walk past someone half dead on the ground, as if they’re not even there?”. But,after a while in India,I found myself still noticing but feeling less sensitive. I think that our human mind/heart eventually de-sensitizes us to it, as a “defense” mechanism. If it didn’t, our hearts would break quickly. The trouble is, that de-sensitization means that nothing gets done to help these people.

    Here in the west,people also eventually ignore people who are begging on the streets. They learn to ignore, because many of them are just scamming. Such people ruin it for the “genuine” people that really “are” desperately in need.

    As for NGO’s,yes it is easy to feel some of them are doing it more for the massive “risk” wages that they’d get in somewhere like Afghanistan or Iraq, rather than a “true” feeling to help and learn from the people. At the same time,I think there are good people in those organizations too. It just does seem that many go around in a bubble.

  2. Yes, it is very odd. But I guess that is life. Differences, social gap, and some people life is worth more than another. But that is the fact of life. Sad but true. Anyway, gua udah baca lu punya question-answer yg Jakarta post, very good answers you did there. Shuo de hao, tebie hao.

  3. Dont forget. We’re also sponsored your meals in Afghan, especially the ones at Cabul Coffee House and various supply of your-free indomie. We never complains.

  4. Dear Mr. UN
    Thank you very much for supporting my meals, especially as the food from expatriate places is indeed out of my budget. And I appreciate very much your kindness and your information about live in Kabul.

    But, again, the purpose of this post was not to attack anybody, nor any organization, as I was to raise people’s concern of the poverty in war-torn Afghanistan and how the big gap exists between foreign organizations to the most people living in the area. The most part of this post was about the children who live on Afghan streets, despite of various numbers of NGOs working on this field. We know much has been done with full of effort in last 5 years, but there are still too many children are still suffering on streets.

    I hope this post may raise concern of people towards these children, and I wish you will understand.

  5. Too bad, We cant help all- we aint santa claus! You are raising the most difficult question which i think colleagues like Jeffrey Sachs, Amartya Sen and Mohammade Yunus still strugling to find the right formula. Maybe you should start from yourself donating part of your salary rather than complaning and being provocator.Your contribution of Afghan burger’s supply once every week will do help them once every week, wont u?

  6. I just found your website, and am glad I did.

    I understand your feelings about the vast differences in the lives of Afghans vs aid workers.

    I wonder if you are aware of organizations, like the one I volunteer with exist. Where everyone is a volunteer, earning no salary, and paying our own expenses to travel to and from Afghanistan.

    Of course we pay salaries to those we hire in Afghanistan to teach, provide health care etc.

    The bottom line is, in my opinion, there is simply not enough aid funding coming in to Afghanistan, through the government, the UN and other large organizations or small volunteer NGOs like mine.

    When you are starting with a situation that Afghanistan was left in after decades of war and indifference from the west, patience seems to be a necessity.

    There are orgainzations that help the street children, as you likely know, but they cannot care for all those in need.

    I hope your blog reaches many more people who will open their pocket and help, and urge their governments do send more funds…..

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