Atefeh is one of the younger members of Iran’s merchant class. Her sales territory is the notorious traffic jams of north Tehran. She moves in on potential clients when the light turns red, pressing her face to car windows, cocking her head to one side and putting on a plaintive face.
At 12, she isn’t as good at plaintive as some of her younger competitors, two boys who are hawking Koranic inscriptions and balloons just up the street. Sometimes her face looks more furious than sad. But she still can clear 55 cents a day selling her packages of pink-and-red strawberry chewing gum to bored and surly drivers.
A decade ago, street children were rare in Iran, with its long traditions of charity for the poor, government aid programs and strong family connections. No more.
Nongovernmental organizations estimate that the number of street children in Iran, officially listed at 60,000, has grown in recent years to 200,000 or more. Many of them are the offspring of Afghan refugees. Others come from Iranian families who have slipped, through unemployment, drug addiction or illness, into the populous ranks of the urban poor.
Social activists say high unemployment, ballooning inflation and misdirected government subsidies have left many families unable to support themselves without turning to their children to help with earnings. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, elected two years ago on a pledge to deliver Iran’s oil wealth back to the nation’s dining tables, has done little so far to improve the lot of Tehran’s poorest families.
“In the early days of the revolution, I remember the slogan was, ‘Welfare, food and health for everyone,’ ” said Bahram Rahimi, director of training at the Children’s House of Shoosh, a school in south Tehran that provides part-time instruction to street children too busy working or too poor to attend normal schools. “Now everyone understands that privatization is the name of the game.”
Although the government has generally made inroads in reducing the poverty rate, rapidly rising prices have reversed many of the gains, and sociologists estimate that 16 million Iranians live in poverty.
The Children’s House stands in the middle of a commercial block in one of the most crowded districts of Tehran.
Inside, its corridors are lined with cheerful, hand-painted murals and its classroom chairs are arranged in haphazard clusters, testimony to a young clientele unaccustomed to sitting still in neat rows.
About 55% of the city’s street children are offspring of the estimated 1.5 million refugees who have flooded into Iran from Afghanistan in waves over the last 20 years, school officials say, and many of the rest are children of single parents, mixed-nationality families or Gypsies. Many come from the growing number of families beset by drug addiction as heroin shipments across the Afghan border have multiplied since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Rahmatollah Sedigh Sarvestani, a sociology professor at the University of Tehran, said the number of drug addicts in Iran, officially listed at 1 million, is more likely closer to 3 million, with the number of users possibly as high as 6 million.
“We don’t have enough job opportunities for people. We are facing, even after the revolution, class differentiation, inequality in income, wealth and power. So there are good reasons to have so many addicts, and every other social deviancy,” Sarvestani said. “This is everywhere. Not just here and there. Everywhere.”
Atefeh, who was afraid to give her last name, is a dark, slight girl who looks much younger than 12. She moved with her family to Tehran from the Caspian Sea region several years ago. She began selling chewing gum on the street two years ago, when her father became ill and had to be hospitalized. There was little choice: Her mother had been killed in a car accident several years earlier; her 10-year-old brother lost his legs not long ago when he chased a soccer ball into the street and was struck by a car.
“After that happened, he became mad, and they’re giving him some pills to try to prevent his madness, but now he’s left,” Atefeh said. “My father told me, ‘Don’t worry, let him alone, he’s mad.’ But we don’t know where he is, and now every day when I wake up, my father tells me, ‘Go into the street and find him.’ ”
Atefeh works all morning and early afternoon hawking gum, then washes dishes and cooks at a neighbor’s house later in the day. She gives her earnings to her father.
“My father told me, ‘After I’m well, I will pay you back,’ ” she said.
“He’s better now, but he’s not working yet. He says he’s going to start working in two or three days.”
At the other end of town, brothers Hossain and Ahmadi Jabrali-Nejar, 17 and 15, sell flowers and bottles of children’s bubbles to passing drivers because their family depends on their earnings.
“My parents are too old to work. My mom is 52, my father is 60. I finished junior high school, and after that my parents prevented me from going to school anymore. They need me to be the breadwinner,” said Hossain, who works the street from 8 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. most days.
“It’s not bad,” Ahmadi said. “It’s better than being a thief or a robber.”
The Children’s House is operated by the Iranian Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child, a project of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.
“The number of street children in Iran is increasing,” Ebadi said.
“The school is part of my plan to supervise and parent these kinds of street children. We train them and we educate them, we provide them with medical treatment, and we have a social worker who works with them.”
The school offers the basics of reading and writing, but first comes instruction in what administrators call the “survival skills” that might enable a 10-year-old to negotiate the perilous hierarchy of the Tehran marketplace.
“We teach them survival of the fittest, how to survive in the streets,” said Javid Sobhani, a children’s rights activist who works at the school. “Part of these survival skills might be communication skills. As a seller and buyer, they may be manipulated or abused by gang leaders. Some of these children are hired out for eight, 10, 12 hours as professional beggars. We teach them how to deal with these horrible abusers.”
Other lessons help children fend off sexual abuse. “The adult men who are operating kiosks in the street see the children as competition, and they may sexually abuse them. This is a way of grooming them. To show them who is the boss,” Sobhani said. “And because of their emotional problems, these children are often very emotional, and emotionally they can be easily manipulated. So we teach them to have self-control.”
There are lessons in using the buddy system to ward off attackers, in staying warm during Tehran’s snowy winters, and in simple technical skills to encourage safer means of earning money.
The school gets little help from the government and none from the clerical establishment.
“Not only do we not receive any support from the established religious hierarchy, it’s just the reverse,” Rahimi said. “Three months ago, one female member of parliament was quoted in a newspaper as saying that promoting the rights of the child is actually promoting the Western humanism ideology, which is contradictory to Islam.”
Shala, a 17-year-old Gypsy who started selling gum and matches on the street when she was 9, took sewing classes at the Children’s House and now earns her living as a housekeeper.
Yalda, 15, began helping her father sell handicrafts on the street when she was 6. At 8, she went to work for a woman in the bazaar, selling lingerie. After four years, she went back to work with her father, this time making their own crafts at home -- melting fluorescent lightbulbs into the shape of apples for sale as home decor.
“I’m happy to do it, because my father works too hard. Sometimes he gets up at 4 a.m. to work, and I would like to see that he has a kind of comfortable life,” Yalda said. “But it’s hard. I used to regret especially when I’d see students going to school. I’d want to cry. I’d want to be going with them.”