By Tehmina Qureshi
Karachi: Every Tuesday and Thursday, 11-year-old Chandni escapes her makeshift abode under the Cantonment flyover in a white van for two hours of respite.
“I don’t tell my mother that I leave. She forbade me to come here. She says it is no good and I should stay home and help with the housework when she is out begging,” she confides with a tinge of regret.
Except for the days when Chandni has a chance to escape her life, every evening she goes to beg at Punjab Chowrangi. “I get up to 300 rupees a day and then my mother and I have tea with paratha.”
With Chandni, whose shanty settlement was set ablaze by the staff of District Municipal Corporation a few days ago, sits Prithi with a bruise on her left eye. She also begs at the Cantt Station with her mother but twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she too runs away in the white van.
“A policeman just grabbed me and began beating me for no reason saying that I make trouble by begging,” she said, as she quickly turned away to leave, as if ashamed.
Both girls are among 20 children living on the streets of District South who come to attend classes at the Commune Artist Colony twice a week. They spend their time learning life skills from members of the commune who volunteer their time for the children.
“Did Chandni tell you she loves dressing up? The other day she got a bad beating from her mother for dressing up at home,” said Faiza, the brains behind the handcrafted designer stationery brand called Firefly.
Rather than being an instructor, Faiza has the status of a mentor, an older sibling whom all the children look up to. When they start getting rowdy, a gentle reprimand is enough to shush the children.
Then they begin circling around her as they tell her of new developments in their lives, and ask for selfies.
The commune owns these 20 children who aren’t owned by anyone, perhaps not even by their families.
It all started when a development professional affiliated with an NGO attended a wedding in Hyderabad where he saw a girl begging on the street eye a doll in the hands of one his relative’s kids.
When he got back to Karachi, he moved to gather all possible resources he could. He also called up the relevant officials in the Sindh government and managed get them to spare a mobile Child Protection Unit — the white van. Space was then required and Yousuf Bashir Qureshi came forward to volunteer free space at his commune.
“My intention was to provide these children a space where they could be children. These children live on the streets and God knows the things they see and go through every day. The idea was to give them a space where they could have fun but also learn some life skills,” shared the development professional when he spoke to The News on the condition of anonymity.
According to information collected from all across the city by the Child Rights Movement, there are at least 500,000 children in Karachi who work on the streets, including those who work at automotive workshops or those who sell small items at the 933 intersections in the city.
Rana Asif Habib, the chief of Child Rights Movement, said out of these 500,000 children, around 30,000 permanently live on the streets. He said these numbers do not include the 15,000 Afghan children who pick recyclable items from garbage to sell them for a pittance.
Though the Sindh government had passed the Sindh Child Protection Authority Act in 2011 and the body was notified in November 2014, since the rules of business haven’t been formulated yet, the body remains without any allocated budget to function.
The child protection authority is mandated on paper to strengthen the existing services of welfare institutions and set the minimum standards for reformatory institutions.
Till that happens, these 20 children will keep coming to the commune in the white government van.
“I spend my day photographing people at Sea View and till last year, Bilal, used to be all alone at home or cleaning cars at the Hyperstar parking lot,” said Ghulam Rasool, a child’s father.
By home, he means a squatter settlement somewhere in the Clifton area. The father and son hail from Sargodha and till last year Bilal used to be back in his village enrolled in school. “But this time when I went back he decided to come here with me. I am happy he gets to come here and learn something. It keeps me from worrying too much.”
According to Yousuf Bashir Qureshi, the cycle of life returns what is put into it. “If you want love, then you have give love. If you want others to take care of you, you have to begin taking care of others. That’s life,” he remarked.
“If I don’t take care of people around me, then I shouldn’t expect others to do it for me. My actions or the lack of it, will return to me someday. So I want to make peace with myself by doing my part and doing what I can.”