Jafar, 12, used to spend his childhood in traffic jams around Kabul. He began working at the age of eight as an espandi, waving a tin of smoky coal made from espand over cars to ward off evil spirits. But this year, he has been given a second chance for his childhood, the chance to study in a private school where he dreams of being an engineer in future.
Samana, 12, was confined to home, where she had begun working at age seven as a carpet weaver, with no vision of a bright future. But now, her eyes envision a far different future as she studies in a private school.
For the parents of Jafar and Samana, as for thousands of others in Kabul, relying on the labor and earnings of their children was a way to cope with poverty. Jafar was born and spent his early childhood in the countryside of Bamyan where he was a shepherd. His family moved to Kabul after the death of his father, aiming to escape poverty. To the contrary, he was forced to join many other child laborers in the streets as his step-father continually rejected his request to study. “I can only feed the family. Isn’t it enough? Do you want me to put you in school also?” said his step-father.
Unlike many of their peers who work in the streets and in their homes, Jafar and Samana both have been given a chance to study at Pegah Private High School. In a well-decorated classroom, Jafar and Samana study first grade, learning how to read and write.
ROYA – Resources of Young Afghans is a small NGO that pays their tuition along with fourteen other former child laborers who study at the school. In addition, ROYA covers the fees for English and computer classes for about 80 other needy students in Kabul and Bamyan, says Shoaib Mehryar, the volunteer coordinator for ROYA in Kabul. Recently, they added 70 needy students in Ghor Province and will cover their expenses to study at the only private high school in the province, Rahnaward-e-Noor High School.
Shoaib’s compassion for these kids has made him invest his time and energy in ROYA, aiming to change their lives of toil. Shoaib describes his commitment to the program saying, “Seeing the smiles on the faces of these kids means the world to me.” Shoaib volunteered to work with ROYA when Kara Lozier, founder of ROYA, started the small project last summer. ROYA identifies and screens under-privileged children, profiling them on social media and their website to make it possible for donors to select the children they wish to sponsor. The monthly sponsorship payment covers the cost of their English classes or private school fees and expenses.
The small project serves a growing number of children hawking in Kabul’s streets. In the many so-called “pockets of poverty” in Kabul, children are the main source of income for their families. Although they may protect their families from starvation, the trauma and deprivation that children face by working in the streets is ignored.
Jafar began to work in the streets with boys in his neighborhood in 2014. Every day, he earned about 100 Afghani ($1.50 US). In the beginning, he wasn’t even able to pay the money to his family, because on his way to home, he was beaten and all his money was stolen by his peers. Jafar was also harassed by ordinary passersby and drivers.
Jamil, 17, was too small to remember his age when he started to work as a carpet weaver. His father was too old to work and disabled from the war and his sick mother needed money to buy medicine. “I was addicted to work,” Jamil painfully remembers. “I didn’t know what I was doing.” Later, he was forced to work at a carpet weaving factory. “Nothing was more painful than seeing my sick mother and my smaller siblings starving.”
He had no idea how to deal with the situation. “I wanted to fade away, vanish and escape from my family,” Jamil recalled. “I was too weak to overcome the situation.” The pain pulled him toward drugs which he tried two times. As he was weighing his options, he was encouraged by a friend to become a drug dealer. He explained, “One day, one of my friends came to me and asked me to be a drug dealer. I followed him for a few meters because he promised to fulfill my dream to study at a private school.”
Instead, ROYA made it possible for Jamil’s dream to come true. Jamil studies in 4th grade at Pegah Private High School with the support of ROYA’s sponsorship program. So far ROYA has successfully re-routed the lives of many child laborers like Jafar, Samana, and Jamil whose lives held no promise of a bright future. Now Jamil dreams of being a psychologist in the future.
 An espandi is someone who sells the smoke from the herb espand to ward off evil spirits.
Note: A version of this article was originally published on 13 August, 2017 in the Afghanistan Times