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The Voices of Afghan Street Children

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British journalist Andrea Busfield lived for several years in Afghanistan, an experience that helped her write the novel Born Under A Million Shadows. Published in 19 countries, the novel tells the story of modern life in Afghanistan, through the eyes of a young boy named Fawad. Like many Afghan children, he is fatherless and works on the streets of Kabul to help his mother. Facing homelessness, Fawad's mother takes a job as a housekeeper, and he suddenly finds himself living in an expatriate home.

Busfield discusses the perception everyday Afghans have of the expatriates and foreign soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban are no longer in power, she says, Afghans must contend with the aftermath of decades of war and brave the constant threat of suicide attacks. Despite such difficulties, a number of Afghans are budding entrepreneurs, she notes, looking for opportunities to cash in on the construction projects being launched in the country, or by catering to the tastes of their foreign visitors.

Could you describe some of the circumstances that Afghan entrepreneurs face?

Busfield: The biggest challenge facing ordinary Afghans is finding the capital to kick-start their ideas. Most Afghans I know have their eyes on the stars no matter where they stand on the ground. And with their country crawling with dollars like never before, most are seeking a way to make the most of the moment. A lot of Afghans have set up construction firms, hoping to cash in on the crop of contracts out there for rebuilding the country's infrastructure. Others have been quick to emulate and cater to the tastes of their Western donors, offering door-to-door taxi services, beauty parlors, supermarkets and fast food joints such as Afghan Fried Chicken. Some have set up incredibly successful media outlets aimed at the home market, such as the Mohseni family, who established Afghanistan's first independent radio and TV station. However, not everyone or every venture has proved successful, and poverty and corruption stifle entrepreneurial spirit. In Afghanistan it is still the case, by and large, that you need money in order to make money.

How effective has foreign aid been in Afghanistan?

Busfield: It is all too easy to knock the effort in Afghanistan. It is true a lot of money gets wasted in bureaucracy and swallowed by corruption, but dollars do filter through and they go towards building schools, clinics and wells, among other needs. Also, it is important to remember that Afghan people aren't simply sitting at home waiting for the great and the good of the West to come to the rescue and make their lives better. Most Afghans I know are determined to see their kids go to school. The first world doesn't have a monopoly on wishing the best for their children.

Osama bin Laden comes up in your book. How was he viewed on the streets of Kabul?

Busfield: The first time I visited Afghanistan was in 2001, shortly after the atrocities of 9/11. I was on the frontline that November when the Taliban fled Kabul. However, I was later surprised to hear that a meeting had taken place between the commanders of both sides a few hours previously in which it was decided, over cups of green tea, that the game was up and the Taliban commanders wouldn't just surrender, but they'd also swap sides. This was, and presumably is, the nature of Afghan warfare. In the end they are all brothers. However, such forgiveness and brotherly solidarity was limited and didn't extend to the foreigners within enemy ranks, which is why most of the Taliban found dead and butchered after the 2001 'liberation' were from Pakistan or Chechnya, for example.

As far as bin Laden was concerned, I'd never heard him much talked about beyond jokes poking fun at his life on the run in Pakistan -- jokes that actually turned out to be true. However, now he is gone it appears that most Afghans I've heard from are simply glad to see the back of them. He wasn't a national hero as Ahmad Shah Massoud or Abdul Haq were (Afghan leaders who fought Russia during its invasion of Afghanistan, and were later killed by the Taliban) -- he was a foreigner who brought indescribable chaos and bloodshed raining down on the heads of Afghans. His capture and death have also simply confirmed everything most ordinary Afghans have been shouting for years -- look to Pakistan!

How would you describe Afghanistan's relationship with neighboring Pakistan?

Busfield: Every Afghan I know blames Pakistan for the mess their country is currently in. And most Afghans are still pretty aggrieved by the drawing up of the 'Durand Line' (the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan drawn up during the British colonial era) which gifted part of Afghanistan to Pakistan, and which many refuse to acknowledge.

At the same time, many Afghans are grateful to Pakistan, as they lived there for years as refugees and still have family there. This is also undoubtedly true. Afghans are grateful and thankful for the help Pakistan has given them during the last three decades and many of my friends class ordinary Pakistanis as friends and Muslim brothers. It is not the people that give the majority of Afghans cause for concern. It is the Pakistani government and, more specifically, the Pakistani intelligence service that angers them. The common belief is that Pakistan prospers from instability in Afghanistan, and therefore Pakistan is the main instigator of this instability.

You were recently in Kabul, what were some of your observations?

Busfield: In some ways it has changed a lot. There are more soldiers on the streets, greater bombproof barriers and security checks. In other ways nothing has changed at all; the traffic is still a nightmare, the shopping is lively and the kids still try to fleece you.

Nearly all of the children in your book also work on the streets to help their families. What are their most common roles?

Busfield: Most children working on the street will usually try to sell you something rather than simply beg for a handout. Some sell magazines -- Afghan and foreign -- and chewing gum appears to be popular. Others will hawk novelty key rings, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) memorabilia, maps, mobile phone credits and phrase books. These children tend to line the city's main roads as well as the streets around the embassies, military camps and shopping areas. Other children work for their money by polishing shoes, washing cars or dispensing good luck in the form of a burning can of herbs they call 'spand.'

Thankfully, quite a few of these youngsters only work in the afternoons when they are not in school. As some of them are also well dressed and carry mobile phones, I imagine they earn enough to help support their families. However, many more are struggling and they work for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they need cash for food, sometimes they simply want to buy some of the luxuries they see displayed in shop windows, and sometimes it's about the greatest prize of all -- a good education. I knew one 13-year-old boy who carried his English school certificates with him at all times. They were a constant source of pride that he used to justify his reasons for working -- he had to find U.S. $30 for each new term.

What would you say to those who would protest such child labor?

Busfield: It's easy when you have a state that takes care of you and you've never known poverty. Sadly, Afghanistan is not in the position where it can adequately protect and look after its citizens. Sometimes children have to work in order for the family to survive.

What are organizations in Afghanistan that you think successfully work with street children?

Busfield: There are a number of organizations in Afghanistan that try to assist children, but perhaps the one closest to my heart is Aschiana. This is a charity that aims to take kids off the street and put them in school. They do this by paying them a wage, which basically allows them to earn by learning. In order to get their money they have to attend lessons and show results. Their teachers constantly measure their performance and sponsors are kept informed of 'their' child's progress. For only U.S. $20 a month, this charity can make a huge difference to an Afghan child's life.

Are there more upcoming books?

Busfield: I finished my second novel, Aphrodite's War, which is set on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus during fifty years of British occupation, interethnic violence and subsequent division. I am now turning my mind to a novel about the Romani people.

This interview was previously published in Arabic Knowledge@Wharton.