The streets are always crowded. Boys and girls running and playing. There is a continuous zig zag of bicycles, cars and wheelbarrows. But there are also the harrowing faces of the marginalised, fearful and suspicious street children. If the police arrest them, they are beaten, but mostly people just avoid them.
They live in a world that will have nothing to do with them. 200,000 of these boys and girls live on the streets of Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, a city of over 16 million people. “Most of them are between the ages of 6 and 14. Not really orphans but abandoned children. Fr. Riccardo Tobanelli an Italian Xaverian Missionary knows them well. He has lived in Bangladesh since 1982. He describes them as “having to look after themselves since they were young children in degrading conditions of absolute poverty”. He continues, “they have to survive in an emotional desert after being abandoned by their families. They are often victims of abuse.
Many are bonded to recycling shops that act as loan sharks and the children are practically slaves until the loans are repaid which could be never. Glue sniffing is widespread and the street children gather at night outside the railway stations or under the highway flyover. Others spend the night under verandas of shops and offices.
Tokai is the Bangali word for ‘gathering’ and the Tokai (street children) spend their day gathering plastic, paper, rusty nails, metal, old shoes, anything that can be recycled and so has some value. The children sell what they have gathered to shops that specialise in recycling. The children help to gather enough ‘rubbish’ every day to buy enough food to survive.
Faced with this hellish tragedy, played out every day and involving thousands of street children who were really slave children, Fr. Riccardo decided he could not just look away and pretend this tragedy did not exist.
In 1994 he decided to start a place where they could sleep in safety and have a meal. Tokai House as he called it, belonged to the street children. It was their safe haven. He started in the town of Khulna, 200 km from the capital. He put up a separate home for the girls.
In 2005 the street children of Dhaka convinced him to set up Tokai Songho (the Community of Street Children) to give the children a place to spend the night without being harassed or robbed by adults and sometime the police. They can get medical attention and a healthy meal. The aim is to help pay off the debts and loans and allow them to become normal healthy children who go to school and can dream of a bright future.
Dignity for all
In the neighbourhood of Kawran Bazaar a small school was opened especially for the children who live along the railway track. At night the school becomes a dormitory where the children can find a bed and a meal. At Khulua, Fr. Riccardo has opened a house for girls who were street children or domestic slaves. The Tokai Songho is freeing young girls who were in fact domestic slaves. Rich families used those young girls from 5 to 14 years old as slaves in their homes for domestic work and to look after their children.
They tried to justify this by explaining to the families of these girls that it was a positive experience the girls would get from living in a comfortable home and seeing how rich people lived. This would prepare them for domestic work and give them the urge to do something later on in life to help their families. But meantime they worked for nothing and had no rights. Fr. Riccardo is adamant. It is our duty to free these children, to allow them to have an education and let them choose the life they want. We must not make the mistake of abandoning these former street children to slavery a second time. (H.J.)