Jamila sold gum to strangers. Nabila collected pieces of paper and sold shopping bags. Aziza rummaged for wood for her mother to build a fire and cook. These three girls were under the age of 16 when they had to work on the streets and become breadwinners for their families. Rather than going to school, which offers some glimmer of hope and future opportunity in war torn Afghanistan, these girls and hundreds of thousands of other young children, find themselves on the streets day-after-day, vulnerable and in constant danger of exploitation.
On the outskirts of Kabul, children huddle in makeshift tents. Growing violence and little opportunity in the surrounding areas have pushed more and more families to flee from the countryside to seek refuge in an already overpopulated capital. However, the situation they are greeted with offers little consolation given the housing shortage and lack of jobs. These families have no choice but to live in a state of limbo in refugee camps -- an infrastructural no-man's land where access to food and water, sanitation and health services is scarce.
With temperatures starting to drop this time of year, immediate action is needed for Afghanistan's children. Families with young children living on the streets or in refugee camps are not equipped to withstand harsh winter conditions. Temperatures in Afghanistan can fall to -15 degrees F in the winter.
But with future foreign aid to the region uncertain, we need home-grown organizations to change the fate of these children. Decades of conflict and instability have led to a perpetual cycle of poverty within the country. A future generation of strong leaders can ensure Afghanistan's security and prosperity.
More than 20 years ago, on his way to work, a child offered to shine the shoes of Yousef Mohammed, an engineer by training. He had noticed the growing numbers of these street children -- feet bare, even in snowy conditions, hustling for money for their families. I recently met with Yousef, who made it his mission to educate and empower these children the day he talked with the young shoe-shiner. He has worked since 1995 through his organization, Aschiana, to provide street children with basic services including education, vocational training, free and nutritious meals, healthcare, psycho-social recovery support and recreational activities. The goal of Aschiana's programs is to give these children the skills needed to integrate into government-run schools. With the organization's assistance, Jamila, Nabila and Aziza were able to go to school. Perhaps even more importantly, their families are part of a network of support focused on bringing up a new wave of responsible citizens who can contribute to the well-being of their families and of a new Afghanistan.
Yousef has trained more than 80,000 children and youth through the Aschiana, establishing both vocational training centers for older children as well as providing in-home training for girls unable to attend school in the centers. Yousef insisted that these achievements did not occur in a vacuum. Thanks to support from international bodies and advocates from around the globe, Aschiana has been able to navigate the complicated terrain of providing services directly to Afghan street children -- and girls in particular -- from a grassroots level.
When I asked Yousef Mohammed what can be done to help these children he told me he believes the transitioning government has a great opportunity to make a difference. In order to help the hundreds of thousands of children living on the streets and in refugee camps throughout Afghanistan, the government needs to take preventative measures to help make sure these families survive the upcoming winter and beyond.
With another democratic election under its belt, the country cannot let its commitment to youth falter. President Ashraf Ghani and the country's chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah are poised to bring change to a nation riddled with years of unrelenting debt, corruption and violence. But this can only happen if both parties can work together. Programs and services to care for and educate vulnerable children need the unanimous support of a government that understands the long-term benefits of doing so.