Living on the Streets

(Photo: © Noel King/IRIN)

A dozen boys discuss the allure of glue and solvents during their time on the streets of the Sudanese capital Khartoum. Solvents made them braver when they attempted to pick pockets or pilfer from shops. The beatings the police administered hurt less when they were high. Their dreams were vivid and pleasant. Glue filled their empty stomachs for hours when a piece of bread would only stave off hunger for a few minutes.

"It makes you forget," Edward, 16, says.

The other boys nod in agreement. Edward, who doesn't give his second name, has many things he would prefer to forget, including the death of his best friend, Bol, who got high a year ago, stumbled into the Nile for a nighttime swim and never emerged alive.

The boys are just a sample of the thousands of children who live and work on Khartoum's streets. Although there are no official numbers, the children are a common sight, sleeping in the markets, stealing what they can or taking petty jobs to make a little money, which is often spent on drugs.

At Bridge of Hope, a non-profit organization on the outskirts of Khartoum, they come to recuperate, to learn, and to rebuild shattered lives.

"These kids are like milk. You stir it and eventually the cream rises to the top," says founder Barbara Gouldsbury, who has worked with Sudanese street children for 13 years.

Gouldsbury, a former nurse, started Bridge of Hope in 2003 and works with 15 Sudanese staff, who teach and look after the 33 boys living at Lundin house, a residential center named for the Swedish family that donated the house. Another 45 boys are enrolled at Bridge of Hope's school next door and 100 more turn up at the drop-in center where they are able to wash, eat, and play.

"Society creates street children and then punishes them for being street children," says Gouldsbury, who has often had to demand medical care for the boys after hospitals turn away even the desperately ill.

The majority of street children in Khartoum are southern Sudanese. Two million southerners, displaced by Sudan's 21-year civil war, live in and around the capital. Many have settled in squalid camps, which is where many of the street children come from. They are children from families with absentee fathers and mothers who are too poor, too exhausted, or too traumatized to care for their children.

Four-year-old Hamdan, for example, was found sleeping in the garden of Lundin house after his brother was accepted into the refuge. The staff thought he was too young to be away from his mother and took him home. But Hamdan returned to the garden every night and was allowed to stay.

He is wary, but now enjoys the traditional dances the others have taught him. The wide-eyed, silent boy comes alive as he struts around the floor, stomping his feet.

Angelo was almost strangled by his mother. Gouldsbury found him in a gutter, emaciated and ill, a decade ago. Now, he is a grinning young man who has decided to move to the southern Sudanese town of Aweil to look for work.


Working with the boys is full of challenges, primarily discipline, say the staff at Bridge of Hope.

"Some of them have lived in the market for years," says Ariath Alfred, who works at Lundin house. "They don't like being told what to do."

But they learn, as is evidenced by the nighttime routine in which the boys are expected to iron their school uniforms, help prepare dinner, and finish their schoolwork.

The staff have their own reasons for accepting the low-paying position.

"When I see these street boys I know that if I had not had good care from my family, I would have become one of them," says Ariath.

Gouldsbury and her staff insist that all children blossom with proper care and offer the boys as proof. James, 21, lost his father in an accident. His mother could not take care of him. At nine, he was living on the streets, addicted to glue. Last month, after years of care with Bridge of Hope and another center, James passed his Sudan certificate and received a diploma.

Most of his classmates were five or six years younger than him, but that didn't bother James at all.

"I look forward now to the future," he says. "I have nobody from outside the center to hold me up, but I have many brothers and sisters behind me that I have to hold up and support. I have to work hard so I can get a good job."

And they dream too. Edward says that when he was using glue he had a vivid fantasy of owning a luxurious car — a fantasy that almost sustained him. But Ariath interjects quietly.

"You can't live your life in your imagination," he tells the boy.

Edward nods his head. He understands. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]