Independent Appeal: On patrol to save the street children of Kabul

Lianne Gutcher meets the aid workers who help get youngsters working in the classroom – and not on the city's pavements

It's the evening rush-hour in Shahr-e Now, a major commercial district in Kabul. Young, suited businessmen are hurrying home along the broken, muddy pavements; older, more traditional men are wrapped in thick woollen shawls to protect them from the chill. The temperature is hovering just above zero and the year's first snowfall is maybe just a week away.

Small groups of children are trying to make the most of the bustle along the pavements, offering their wares for sale: chewing-gum, magazines, tissues and socks. Some of these children are the main breadwinners in their families, feeding many mouths on their meagre incomes. Some of the better-off children have jackets to keep them warm. The poorer ones are grimy, shivering in thin shirts and decrepit flip-flops.

For the past two-and-a-half years, social workers from Save the Children – one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal – have run the Street Patrol project to check on these children, and help them with problems they and their families can't tackle on their own. If they come across runaways, they find them shelter.

The social workers work in male/female pairs and patrol five days a week. In the winter, the work starts at 11.30am and goes on until 7.30pm. When the social workers meet a new child, they ask them to tell their parents about the encounter. Then, they ask the child to come back and tell them more about their circumstances and why they work on the streets. They then go and visit the family, perhaps also taking along a parents whose child is already in the programme.

Sometimes they can help the parents with a job offer, or provide the family with an alternative way to make an income. Sometimes all they can do is to convince the parents to let their child attend a recreation centre for an hour each day. There, they play games and learn new skills in a warm, safe environment.

Imran is nine, though he looks about six. He is the sole breadwinner in his family. On good days he earns about 100 afghanis (£1.30) selling books. On a bad day, he earns half that. "My father is very sick and is in bed, so I work on the street," he says. "It's not easy."

Imran has five sisters and one brother all younger than him. He goes to school in the mornings, then works on the streets until 9pm or 10pm. When he is finished, he makes the hour-long journey home by foot. Imran says his dream is to become a doctor.

On this particular evening, the social workers do not encounter anything worse than a few kids with colds. But runaways are the most heartbreaking, says Mirzia Noori, one of the female social workers. "They escape from their families. When we try to integrate them back into their families, the parents often don't want them. We had an 11-year-old girl whose father didn't want her back. He said she had brought great shame on him and that other members of the community had ostracised him because he let her escape from home." In the end, he did agree to take her back, Ms Noori said.

Across town, 25 girls are finishing their hour at one of recreation centres. They did some maths then they played games. They yell out, "Bye! Bye!" as they set off for home, waving and smiling cheekily. Jemila is 13 and has been coming to the centre for a year. "Before, I went to school in the morning then went to Zarnega Park and sold tea," she says. "Boys were always harassing me and teasing me. The project gave my family support. They bought us a sewing-machine. Now my mother sews things and sells them to the bazaar and I don't have to work on the streets."

Jemila is also learning to sew – she has just learned the basics, she says – but she has ambitions beyond being a seamstress. "I would like to be a good teacher in the future and do service for my country," she says.

Gulam Mohammad Zalmai, a former policeman turned social worker, says that the children who come here not only learn that they have rights, but that they have responsibilities too. "If a child goes to school, the family buys them a uniform and notebooks. It is the child's responsibility to take care of their clothes and use their stationery carefully."

Ms Noori, who has seven children, says: "There are many parents who don't know that children have rights. They send their children to work on the streets, they hit them and beat them. The girls, especially, face problems on the streets. They are abused, sometimes sexually, sometimes violently. We run workshops on children's rights and child-protection for parents. They do listen carefully. You can ask the kids; their parents changed their behaviour."

Mr Zalmai, who runs the workshops for the fathers, says: "There is a tradition in Afghanistan: all the fathers say to the mothers, it is your responsibility to bring up the children. At the workshops, I tell the fathers they have a responsibility too."

The social workers frequently find parents are reluctant to send their children to school, especially daughters. After the workshops, many change their minds. Monisa, who is 13, has just started going to school after a parenting workshop convinced them it was in all their best interests. "I'd like to become a doctor," she says shyly. "This is my great ambition."

Save the Children would like to set up four more centres and continue their street patrols. But funding is running out. The project will finish at the end of December if no money can be found.

Appeal partners: Who we're supporting

Save the Children

Save the Children works in 120 countries, including the UK. They save children's lives, fight for their rights and help them fulfil their potential. Save the Children's vital work reaches more than 8 million children each year - keeping them alive, getting them into school and protecting them from harm.

The Children's Society

The Children's Society provides vital support to vulnerable children and young people in England, including those who have run away from home. Many have experienced neglect, isolation or abuse, and all they want is a safe and happy home. Their project staff provide essential support to desperate children who have no-one else to turn to.

Rainbow Trust Children's Charity

Rainbow Trust Children's Charity provides emotional and practical support for families who have a child with a life threatening or terminal illness. For families living with a child who is going to die, Rainbow Trust is the support they wished they never had to turn to, but struggle to cope without.

At The Independent we believe that these organisations can make a big difference to changing many children's lives.