Survivors | Aeon

Munkhbat and Altangeret have lived down this manhole in Unur district of Ulaanbaatar for three years. The search for food and warmth rules their lives, as temperatures drop to -40C. Photo by Richard Wainwright



Filthy and violent it may be, but life is still precious for the world’s street children. Can you look them in the eye?

by Ben Faccini + BIO

Munkhbat and Altangeret have lived down this manhole in Unur district of Ulaanbaatar for three years. The search for food and warmth rules their lives, as temperatures drop to -40C. Photo by Richard Wainwright

Years ago, along the cacophonous roads leading from Ramses Train Station in Cairo, I came across a small girl with a bright red headscarf weaving her way in and out of the slow-moving traffic, her bare feet shrouded in a haze of exhaust fumes. I watched as she banged on the windows of vehicles, the red of her headscarf a lurching traffic light forcing buses and trucks to a sudden halt. When drivers opened their windows to shoo her away, the girl pleaded for a chance to say something, running alongside the traffic to keep up. Uncowed by dismissive hand gestures or hastily resealed windows, she visited car after car, like a bee in a field of giant flowers, looking for a chance to speak to someone. She accepted the dregs of a water bottle and the tossed remains of snacks, but it wasn’t until she made one driver laugh, then another, that she finally received two precious coins.

Intrigued by the scene, I asked some Egyptian colleagues to help me talk to the girl. We found her sitting in the shade, against the pillar of a flyover, with a tiny boy, of three or four, huddled beside her. As we approached, the children stood up, ready to bolt, but we assured them we weren’t officials; we just wanted to talk. The girl was called Nadra. She was nine. As she spoke, her little brother nudged his head into the grimy folds of her dress and hid. Nadra explained that their widowed and bedridden mother spent her days in a lightless one-room shack on the outskirts of the city waiting for them to return with whatever they could find — some food, a bit of money, an item of clothing, a blanket for their shared bed mat.

Each day Nadra walked to central Cairo, dragging her little brother with her, to earn what she could by telling jokes to drivers. The jokes were based on improbable scenarios involving an Italian, a Frenchman and an Egyptian, or they were tales about hapless farmers from Upper Egypt getting lost in the maze of Cairo’s streets. Sometimes they were simply puns, a play on words. Nadra made them up from snippets of conversation she’d overheard or memorised from the television screens she paused to gaze at on her way back to her mother.

It seemed miraculous to me that a hungry, unschooled nine-year-old, who cared for a straggling younger sibling and a sick mother, could find it in herself to invent jokes and one-liners. But with her jokes, Nadra had found a unique way of wresting life-saving money from drivers who occasionally relented and dropped a small coin in her filthy palms, no doubt making sure not to touch her. Jokes were a weapon to shatter the indifference around her.

Ever since that defining meeting in Cairo, the resilience and ingenuity of street children has interested me, and despite numerous new encounters with street children across the world, Nadra has continued to haunt me; thanks to her, I began to wonder what society might really look like from the point of view of a street child, and to think about what it took to withstand the ordeals of homelessness. I yearned to know how Nadra managed to keep her imagination undefiled by the horrors of her life. Such questions deeply affected my work with excluded children and their education.

At the time I met Nadra, I was part of a project studying the conditions of children eking out a living on the streets of the Egyptian capital. Along with other colleagues from United Nations agencies, we interviewed a whole range of children. There were garbage-pickers and shoe-polishers, children who hawked their wares in market places, who led drivers towards spare parking places, cleaned windscreens or ran errands, chased tourists for loose change, or simply scrabbled through bins. Like street children in many countries, they described how the street was an unforgiving provider of life; how it could easily, and quickly, become the agent of death. They revealed how their waking hours were one long quest to subsist: scavenging, begging, bartering, scratching around for any means to pull through. Their eyes permanently scoured the pavements and roads for anything that might turn their lives around — a cigarette butt, a dropped banknote, a discarded piece of food, an abandoned scrap of clothing. Every breath they took had to be filled with resourcefulness.

The phrase ‘street children’ is a much-used catch-all term for heterogeneous groups of children. Some live solely on the street, sleeping rough, finding shelter where best they can. Some spend their days in public spaces before returning to a family or a similar support structure in the evening. Others still live with their families on the streets. Overall figures don’t necessarily allow for these distinctions. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates there are currently more than 100 million street children worldwide — an estimate that is often quoted, with all categories of street child included. But it is those children who live solely on the street, away from a consistent adult presence of any kind, who are perhaps the most emblematic of the phenomenon. Research shows that these children leave, or are forced to flee, their homes for many reasons. Family breakdown and the death or illness of a parent are prime factors but, equally, natural disaster, conflict and abuse play their part.

While escaping to the streets is often a child’s only solution, the street provides an ephemeral freedom. It becomes mother, father, school and home. Survival rates are unsurprisingly low. Once on the street, a child can quickly get sucked into a life of violence and sexual exploitation, trafficking and substance abuse. Their existence is overshadowed by the urgent need to find a safe place to sleep and shelter. Those who do survive become forever alienated from mainstream society — and all the more menacing to it as they grow older.

There are cardboard boxes for beds, a few clothes hung over cracked rusting pipes, water collected in plastic bottles

Beyond the perpetual consternation of seeing young faces aged before their time, there is usually one detail that remains engraved in the mind after meeting a street child. That detail is often more potent than the generic attributes shared by many homeless children — premature deep wrinkles, raw eczema and psoriasis on the hands, rotting teeth, bodies stunted by malnutrition, patchy hair, lips cut with scabs, eyes dulled by substance abuse. One street boy in Mali, I remember, wore a pair of broken headphones round his neck. The end of the flex hung down to his bloated belly where his navel was buzzing with flies, a mass of wings, simmering and infected.

I recall a bleeding boy of only three or four in a doorway in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. He’d been beaten by a group of older children and was hunched over in the fetal position. His clenched fist clutched a hunk of bread that he had valiantly refused to surrender to his assailants: dry bread saturated with blood. Then a girl in Morocco, on the edge of Zagora and with the desert behind her, who put down the tray of food she was selling and showed me how she could write her name. A billowy sleeve concealed her hand as she traced into the dirt the letters of the only word she could spell. It was as if she’d conjured it from some hidden compartment. And in Bucharest, Romania, I watched a boy in a sagging, buttonless overcoat upturn the bins outside McDonald’s. With expert skill, he flicked through the rubbish, prising open boxes, rooting out unfinished food. He chucked the remains of burgers over a wall to some waiting friends. Then — like a champion smoker attempting to accommodate 50 cigarettes at once — he rammed as many chips as he could into his mouth and sucked on them.

Munkhbat changes the date on his watch. Apart from the clothes he is wearing this is his only possession in life. Photo by Richard Wainwright

In Mongolia, subterranean societies, free from adults, have been created by street children seeking refuge from hostile strangers, and the biting cold. Many of the buildings in the central part of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, are heated, thanks to a labyrinth of pipes built in the Soviet era to carry scalding water from power stations on the edge of the city. Manholes dotted around the pavements lead to grubby cavities where makeshift platforms can be set up above the water pipes. Vagrant minors live in groups, the oldest of them often taking charge in an unstructured way. Disease is rife, but a semblance of a home is created amid the dark and fetid heat. There are cardboard boxes for beds, a few clothes hung over cracked rusting pipes, water collected in plastic bottles. Once children retreat into this world it is hard to persuade them to resurface. The purposes of mainstream society soon wither away, as does trust in fellow humans. A woman who ran an education project for deprived youths in Ulaanbaatar told me that the greatest issue she faced was persuading the street children of the city to take advantage of the washrooms she provided. The children understood that it would benefit them to have a warm and disinfecting shower, but the inconvenience of removing and then replacing the newspaper they wrapped themselves in to keep warm was too great a challenge. One child took so long to rebind himself in new layers of newspaper that he missed his only literacy lesson. Others preferred to take any food they were offered and disappear back underground, unwashed, only to be further shunned by society as a result.

The police of Ulaanbaatar regularly do the rounds of the city to pick up stray children. Any they find are taken to a holding centre on the outskirts of the capital and kept there until they can be filtered off to various state institutions. Some then escape back to the street, only to be rounded up again later. In 2008, I was talking to the well-disposed policeman in charge of the holding centre when a van with the latest batch of children arrived. The back doors opened and a jumble of spindly legs, ragged clothes and knotted hair spilt out. The children were herded into the building and lined up in single file. There was a queue of up to 30, some already in their teens. Their hacking coughs and scratching spread in a ripple down the line. A toddler with bare legs and thin hair was passed from one teenager to another to hold. Once on the floor she walked up and down the queue of children looking for familiar faces, tugging on legs she knew. At no point did she look towards the adults present: we were unfamiliar and ghostly presences with no relevance to her life. In the neon-lit centre, the children breathed and acted as one, acutely aware of the divide between them and everyone else.

The police centre, its naked lighting, lino flooring and ringing phones: this was the hostile world they had fled by heading down the manholes into the dark and diseased warmth. One by one, the children were asked to register their details with an official. Some, inevitably, had been to the centre before. Others were new to the police. Some had no idea of their birthdays, original addresses, or the names of their parents. After being washed and having their hair cut, the children reappeared in assortments of ill-fitting second-hand clothes that had been donated to the centre; Mickey Mouse T-shirts with tracksuit bottoms, shorts with wool jumpers, hoods and gloves. Some had found no tops their size and had covered themselves as best they could, their ribs sticking out from under scarves or shrunken vests. The toddler girl wandered aimlessly in purple pyjamas with fluffy slippers. In a heap in one corner lay the rags that the children had arrived in — putrid jumpers and trousers, chafed shoes with split soles.

I once attended a workshop where we were asked to note down those characteristics of street children that could be built on in education programmes. Entrepreneurship, combativeness, perseverance and a critical eye were listed by several participants. Indeed, the entrepreneurship of street children is often put forward in education schemes. Many display impressive dexterity with numbers, having had experience counting small change, and bargaining with people they suspect will cheat them out of their meagre earnings. Their ability to talk and persuade can be exploited, too. Yet systems of schooling for which children require certificates, addresses and all the paraphernalia of formal education are not best suited to children of the street. More flexible and innovative approaches to learning, weaving in counselling, health care, life skills, technical and vocational training, have more chance of having an impact.

The Lotus Children’s Centre in Mongolia, for example, has a constant eye on breaking the cycle of poverty while children are in its care, training them for future employment. Contact with vulnerable families is maintained and nurtured where possible. The Moroccan NGO Bayti follows a similar approach, putting an emphasis on socialising skills for re-entry into mainstream society. The Fundación Renacimiento in Mexico City offers bakery, carpentry and computing, as well as electrical engineering programmes to former street children.

To qualify for these courses, the children have to pass through a staged programme that requires them to renounce drugs and violence of any kind, and to build a specific life project with counsellors and educators. Rebuilding a life is no easy undertaking for children who carry layers of pain, and many NGOs, on all continents, have come up with innovative concepts and support structures for the process. They provide essential care to those with nowhere else to turn. At a wider level, UNICEF, UNESCO and other organisations use the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as a guiding framework, attempting to influence policies and governmental attitudes. Central to all of this, though, is the need to recognise what street children have been through, to work with their stories and listen to their past.

Listening was part of the rationale behind the campaign that I helped to establish in 2008 with fellow author Lauren Child, under the auspices of UNESCO. Called ‘My Life Is a Story’, it was designed to help street and excluded children to relate their personal histories by providing a platform for voices that had never been heard. The campaign is now over, but some powerful accounts were garnered. They revealed the almost unimaginable tortures that many street children go through and how vulnerable young lives can quickly tip into abomination.

One boy from Alexandria in Egypt described how he ran away from home when his new stepfather regularly chained him up in a cemetery overnight as a punishment. Another boy in Latvia described how he would occasionally visit his addict mother in a squat where she picked the fleas off herself and placed them in a see-through plastic bag. In Mexico, Jesús was sent to live with relatives, but got on the wrong bus aged 10 and ended up at the other end of the country, penniless and homeless. Girls in Senegal and Namibia, who had been employed as underage maids with wealthier families, told how they had been ruthlessly abused and worked to the bone before they’d run away to the streets.

These objects can become almost talismanic: a found bracelet, a lucky plastic spoon, or a crinkled photograph are all possible proof of a continued shared humanity

Beyond the intricacies of life’s calamities, what emerged through these stories was how vital is a sense of personal narrative to feeling human, all the more so when that narrative is acknowledged by others. The street children who contributed to the ‘My Life Is a Story’ campaign found it hard to believe that anyone could be interested in their lives, their voices or their opinions. More often than not, street children have been stripped of any sense of themselves, of their own uniqueness and significance. Like the boy with the battered headphones in Mali, they cling to any object that might yet give them a modicum of dignity or meaning in the eyes of others.

These objects can become almost talismanic: a found bracelet, a lucky plastic spoon, or a crinkled photograph are all possible proof of a continued shared humanity. When the connection to others is irredeemably lost, there is little for street children to hold onto. The common narrative they might have once shared with society simply splinters, and remembering the past becomes pointless. Substance abuse is just one way to obliterate the story they once inhabited.

A young boy in a government run orphanage in Ulan Bator. Having previously had a bad reputation they have now been cleaned up and well run. Photo by Richard Wainwright

As part of the ‘My Life Is a Story’ campaign I would try to raise awareness in British schools by disseminating the real-life stories of street children. I would begin my talks with a series of flashed-up images: a rough shelter on a station platform, a rubbish dump with foraging children, a boy cleaning a windscreen. It was interesting to see how children accustomed to comfort reacted. Many understood the notion of running away. Nor was it uncommon for pupils to say that they’d often thought about what it might be like to survive on the streets, to have to pull through alone, unaided. Most children were able to imagine losing everything and it terrified them — their fears having been triggered by seeing homeless people on the streets of their own cities.

When we touched on the specific challenges of survival, several pupils spontaneously announced that they would prefer to steal than to do menial or degrading jobs. Others said they would hang out at the backs of restaurants and plead for food. Many more said they would want, above all, to find a safe place in a park or shopping centre to sleep in. All quickly realised that being on the street would, at some point, put them in conflict with the police in one way or another.

Such discussions generally veered towards a kind of empathy with those who were dispossessed but, undeniably, huge gaps remained. We were still in the realm of theory. When all was said and done, street children were a different type of human for most British school kids. Their physical pains, their mental anguish, their diseases, their joys too, belonged to a universe that British children, as a rule, couldn’t really grasp.

Schoolchildren are not alone in that perception. To view street children as different, and separate, is perhaps an obvious way to live with the insupportable reality of their plight. Of course, it goes without saying that street children are no different from our children, from ourselves (how we once were), but to accept this truly, and to live with it, is hard. It undermines one of the most fundamental and commonly shared foundations of all human societies: that we care for, and protect, our children. Instead, the most vulnerable and youngest are often forced into the role of outcasts. The child becomes untouchable, a pariah — alone, assailable and exposed to the abjectness of the world.

On my return from Mongolia, I remember repeatedly feeling bewildered by my own young children. As I got them ready for bed, I found myself struggling to chase away insistent images of the Mongolian children in the heating vents. Yet I had to banish those very fresh memories in order just to be with my children. I became quickly frustrated by their complaints about life: ‘I don’t like my peas and mash touching’; ‘I’m not watching Robin Hood again’. These were the capricious banalities of children used to comfort, and I wanted to yell at them that they didn’t realise how lucky they were.

He began to construct a picture of her life; did she sleep in a station, he asked, or in an empty, derelict house with a sister, or a father?

However, my frustration hid many layers of unresolved emotion. I had hoped that my recent experiences would anaesthetise me to the pettiness of family life. Instead, I felt a real bleakness, and its slow bitterness released itself into my parenting. Mongolia had made me doubly aware how precious childhood was but, equally, I was repulsed by my own children’s innocence. Their cleanliness, abundant food and clothing felt like an obscenity. On more than one occasion, I had to pull the car over, the engine running, and stare into space for a few seconds while the children bickered behind about their car seats touching each other, their feet kicking me in the back. A silent rage had overcome me and I didn’t know how to deal with it.

On a recent trip to Istanbul, alone with my 10-year-old son, we watched a street girl, no older than eight braving the bitter winds coming in off the Bosphorus in a threadbare T-shirt as she desperately tried to repair her broken accordion. Each time she mended it, it would play for a few minutes before breaking again. My son was entranced by the oversized men’s shoes she wore and by her matted, feral hair. I could see him looking around at the few tourists in a bid to identify her neglectful parents. Their absence was totally unnatural and foreign to him. He wanted to be reassured that she wasn’t alone in the city, without a safety net.

The girl’s shoes and accordion provided an opening onto her world, an aperture through which we could discuss her predicament. We talked about how she might have acquired her accordion and how she might have learnt to play. Who did her shoes belong to? I’m not sure I got the conversation right and, when my son didn’t understand, I found myself getting blunt (and guilty, too, aware, at the back of my mind, that a parent’s role is also to protect a child from the asperities of life).

An expatriate friend in Eastern Europe told me she was once bold enough to buy hamburgers for three street boys in order to show her own offspring how charmed their life was. She’d just handed over the hamburgers when another band of vagrant children appeared out of nowhere, each demanding a burger of their own. My friend ended up buying at least 10 burgers with a string of children’s dirty faces squashed up against the window of the fast-food outlet, watching her every move. Things had been brought to a violent halt when a customer prevented her from reaching the counter again. A row ensued in which the customer told her he couldn’t bear to be put off his food by the sight of vermin any longer. It was an episode my friend’s children were unlikely to forget.

In Istanbul, it was only when we were accosted by a Syrian family begging for money that my son became fully engaged with the subject of homelessness and precarious living. Here was a family who had fled the violence of civil war. He had heard about the Syrian conflict on television, and war was a feature of books he had read and films he had seen. He referred back to the girl with the accordion. Maybe, he thought, she had come from Syria? He began to construct a picture of her life, imagining her trudging through the mountains and the cold to reach Istanbul. Did she sleep in a station, he asked, or in an empty, derelict house with a sister, or a father? What did she think about as she played the accordion?

I could see my son battling with concepts that were far from his life and that directly challenged many of his beliefs. The next day, we looked for the girl with the accordion. She had disappeared. But the orange cloth she had used to collect money was still on the pavement, and people were walking round it. Perhaps they were trying to work out where it had come from? An absence and a puzzling presence. And no resolution for my son.

Street children are the product of many compounded flaws: our continued failure to halt endemic violence against women and children, our incapacity to stem extreme poverty, our inability to resolve conflicts, or even to deal equitably with natural disasters. Locking them up, or repressing them, won’t resolve any of these global issues. It won’t remove the fear and guilt abandoned children inspire in us either.

It is easy to say that the young lives of untamed children and adolescents have nothing to do with us, or that they live in a dimension we cannot understand. And yet each street child I have met has had a unique story, and a richness of experience that holds lessons for all. Maybe that is why it pains me all the more that street children are ignored, barely acknowledged. They’re forced to exist in a world parallel to ours, and, out there, in their other world, in their bus stations and gutters, in the filth and vileness of their refuse dumps, they survive as best they can, with the same emotions we all share. Our greatest insult to them is to remove their humanity even further by not recognising a part of ourselves in them. We diminish ourselves by refusing to look them in the eye.

EthicsHuman rights and justicePoverty and development

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