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Iran Standard Time | Down on Vali Asr: Encounters with Tehran's Street Children


15 May 2012 04:25Comments

Lives maintained with Band-Aids.

StreetKids1.jpg[ field report ] Vali Asr is one of the longest streets in Tehran. It runs from Tajrish in the north to Meydan-e Rahahan in the south. Tall sycamore trees standing erect on the narrow but open waterway line both sides of the street. The street is on a slight downward slope as it heads southward, passing through the neighborhoods of Vanak, Hemmat, Park-e Sai, Motahari, and Fatemi before reaching Meydan-e Vali Asr. By the point where the street crosses Enghelab, the trees are not only few and far between but also skimpier, perhaps a reflection of the socioeconomic differences between north and south Tehran. In the winter, there is considerably more snow on the northern stretch of Vali Asr than toward the railroad tracks in the south. Attending my Farsi classes in the northern part of the city, I often had to prepare myself for the snow we received little of in my south-side neighborhood.

Esfandiar and Soleiman

From Parkvay onward there were small children, about six to ten years old, who got on and off the buses selling Band-Aids, facial tissue, batteries, gum, and fal-e Hafez -- love poems by Hafez that provide clues to one's future. The girls were usually in some type of school uniform, even though they do not go to school, with a maghnaeh -- a scarf that goes around the head and is sewn closed in the front -- a blue or gray jumper dress, and a long-sleeve blouse. Most of the children who sold more than one item usually carried a small backpack with some version of a Disney character printed on the back side. The older girls, though not much older than ten, were no longer in school uniform and instead wore a roosari -- a square cloth, folded into a triangle and wrapped around the head -- and manteau -- a coatlike blouse that extends to the mid-thigh or knees.

I wondered why the little girls were in uniform and the boys were not. Perhaps they did attend school in the morning, or their caretaker had access to used uniforms and it was more convenient to dress them this way. Perhaps dressing the little girls in uniform provided them extra protection from the authorities by lessening the possibility of their getting caught, since children under the age of 11 must attend school. Perhaps the boys were not in uniform because it was assumed that they had an easier time dodging the authorities.

Three children in particular knew me by face, two boys and one girl, as they often got on the bus that I took. The little girl hardly ever smiled, and I never really got the chance to catch her name. Each time I saw her, she would be trying to coordinate with the two boys about which stop they would all get off at. One of the boys, Soleiman, was more playful than the other two children. He had dark brown hair and freckles that moved about with his ever-present smile. Once when I got off the bus in Vanak on my way to Mulla Sadra, Soleiman saw me and followed, walking briskly, zigzagging his way around me. He continued to say, "Band-Aids? Tissues? How about gum? Come on." He laughed in between. The other boy, Esfandiar, maybe a year or two older than Soleiman, though not as playful, was just as jovial. On the bus or train, eye contact and a signature nod of the head constituted the sales pitch: Come on, buy from me. Half a minute of staring into an adult's face was another familiar, and effective, strategy.

I learned their names during one of the first 13 days of Farvardin. The boys saw me standing at the corner across the street from Park-e Daneshju waiting for the light to turn green. They both approached, one with a stack of fal-e Hafez, the other with tissues. Esfandiar said to me, "Khanum, khanum" (lady, lady), as if to tell me, Hey, we know you. Remember us? It was hardly proper to address an adult so informally, let alone a foreigner, as they probably suspected I was. They were surprised I could speak to them in Farsi and could not stop laughing. Soleiman, in particular, rubbed his stomach while he laughed, as if he felt the giggles from inside.

I asked their names first, but they did not respond. The older one looked at the younger one, turned to me and asked for my name. I said, "Esme man Amine ast," and extended my hand out to shake theirs. They looked at each other. Esfandiar gave his name first, then Soleiman. Both shook my hand and then asked if I wanted to buy what they had. In the meantime, other children were hovering around us, running around and playing. I was not interested in what they were selling, but I pulled out some money and handed it to both boys. They hesitated to accept it until I said it was my Eid gift for them.

Street children's various spaces

One late afternoon in December 2010, I saw one of the younger children in the group for the first time. From inside the bus, I saw him sitting on a block of cement that divides the car lanes going north on Vali Asr from the bus lanes that stretch in both directions. He appeared to be about six years old. He stared and stared into space. He carried two packets of tissues in his right hand, and a few more in his left. He wore a backpack and a bonnet to protect his head from the cold. His stare was not an empty one, but it seemed he was not looking at any object so much as he was at the prospect of escaping the present moment. It was the look of a little boy who would rather have been elsewhere -- and he could be, if he could just finish this one task. The difference between his expression and that of another child with a home was the latter's certainty that he would not be in the streets the next day and the next after that, the certainty that cars, trains, and buses were toys instead of sources of income.

StreetKids2.jpgWith every breath he took, a puff of cold air appeared from his small mouth and nose. Two men in a shiny white Mercedes-Benz called him over. He stood up and walked toward the car, his head barely making it above the window. The man tried to hand him a 20-cent bill, but the little boy refused it, shaking his head "No," clearly insisting the man purchase one of the packets of tissues. Some of the children had similarly rebuffed my own attempts to hand them a little money.

There were street children who did not make their living on public transportation but instead sat on the sidewalk selling items laid out either on the ground or an empty box -- I came to recognize two who regularly sat against the wall to the left of Tandis Mall, as well as others at the corner of Shariati and Vali Asr in the north, and where Meydan-e Enghelab and North Kargar meet. One child I recall in particular was a stout little boy who wore shorts and a faded maroon T-shirt that was much too small, exposing his belly button. One day, he saw me crossing Saba Boulevard toward the Gheytarieh subway station with a plastic bag of takeout food in my hand. He ran toward me, catching up to me in the crosswalk right before I reached the far side of the street. He grabbed on to the plastic bag, tugging at it, which only twisted it tighter around my wrist. When we both made it across the street, an older man pulled him away from me and told him to behave himself because I was a foreigner. The man turned to me, apologized, and said, "He's hungry." As I unraveled the handle of the bag from my wrist, the old man apologized again.

There were also those street children in city parks like Park-e Laleh and Park-e Sai. In fact, the first time I met street children in Tehran was in Park-e Laleh in October 2010 as my daughter and I were sitting on a bench. These children were dressed in clean clothes. Their hair was nicely combed and they appeared to be well-fed. One of them had been given balloons to sell, but they, too, mostly sold tissues, Band-Aids, batteries, and fal-e Hafez. Amused by our foreign facial features, they hung around us staring, imitating the words we spoke to them, and laughing. They played with our camera and asked us to take several pictures of them. At the sound of a motorcycle, they would all run for cover in the bushes, fearing the police or the Basij were coming for them. After the sound faded away, they would emerge from the bushes and sit with us.

There were other children in the subway cars, mostly on line 1, which runs between Behesht-e Zahra in the south to Tajrish in the north. They had a distinctive character: somewhat more aggressive at times; at others, mournfully tired with frowning faces, slouched shoulders, and tears of frustration. Rarely did I find street children on board lines 2 and 4, which run east and west through the city, unless they were with adult family members who were begging. This might be related to the different cars that ran on these lines -- blocked off at each end, rather than the open design of the cars on line 1.

Sweeping problems, limited solutions

A friend who was involved with a Tehran NGO that works with drug addicts said many of the children on Vali Asr were associated with one or another of the store owners on the street. The children would sell small items for the store and keep either a commission or, in the case of a particularly generous storekeeper, the entire profit. Some of the children were Afghan, while others had parents who were unemployed or addicted to drugs. Many of the children were not able to attend school because, for one reason or another, they did not possess the necessary identification card. In the evenings, those who did not have homes slept in abandoned buildings, leaving them vulnerable to rape, robbery, beatings, and exposure to drug use. In general, the boys eventually turn to manual labor as they age, while the girls either marry or, with proper training, work in factories. Many young girls also turn to prostitution.

Adoption is difficult in Iran and hardly a viable option for any substantial number of street children. A friend of mine described the process her family went through in adopting her now eight-year-old brother when he was two: her father had to show proof that he could provide for the child for 30 years and had the financial capability to name a building after him. A lawyer explained that this was how the state sought to eliminate the possibility of child slavery under the guise of adoption.

Another friend of mine, a professor of sociology, described his experience interacting with guest families at fundraising events for orphanages. He said when orphanages ask him to speak to families about the possibility of adoption, very few respond. He believed the resistance had little to do with economic hardship; many of the families invited to these functions, he said, were well up on the socioeconomic scale. For him, it had much more to do with Iranians' general attitude toward taking children not related by blood, let alone non-Iranian children, into their homes. He said, "Iranian families simply do not do that. They ask, 'What if there is something wrong with the child?'"

Thoughts from the field

StreetKids3.jpgConditions are certainly worse for street children in other parts of the world. The number of street children in Tehran and the state of their daily lives does not compare to the situation in southeast Asian countries where untold hundreds of thousands of children are maimed, sold to pedophiles, and sex trafficked. Still, that does not allow us to ignore the growing problem of children in the streets of Tehran. At the level of individual decision making, the situation is even more unsettling when contrasted with other phenomena. Iranians spend $2.1 billion on beauty products annually, accounting for 29 percent of beauty product consumption in the Middle East. Iran has the highest rate of rhinoplastic surgery in the world and one of the highest rates of "embroideries," reproductive-organ surgeries, which cost between $3,000 and $6,000 per operation.

It is painful to write this. As a non-Iranian, it has been difficult for me to mention these matters because, regardless of political views, there is a sensitivity about a non-Iranian describing anything remotely negative about Iran. In my efforts to describe the lives of street children in Iran, I have often been misunderstood. Negativity was not my objective. My motivation is a concern for children, but I recognize the need to tread lightly.

It is easy to lay responsibility on "them" -- whether the state, the mullahs, foreign powers, alienated moderns, religious traditionalists. Social welfare programs do exist for Iranian street children, yet their numbers continue to rise. When it comes to helping children, it cannot always be about who is in power, who is to blame. How one views the obligation to wear the hejab or the prohibition of alcohol has no direct correlation to keeping a child warm and fed. The mitigation of the problem must come in large part from the cumulative efforts of individuals, even if each of those efforts appears small and insignificant when considered in isolation.

As a non-Iranian, I think about the first person in the history of mankind to have declared the rights of human beings to life, liberty, and justice under the law. He was from Iran. He lies buried in Pasargad. I also think about the first person in the modern Muslim world to have brought about a revolution of the masses against an oppressive king. He was also Iranian. He lies buried near Behesht-e Zahra.

And I wonder if that will ever make a difference for these children.

As I write this, the street children in Park-e Laleh still hide in the bushes at the sound of motorcycles passing by. They laugh and giggle until the next threat looms.

The field work on which this piece is based was conducted in 2011. Archive photos.

related reading | Seyyed Hassan, Who Lives under the Stars | Iran's Cities a Sea of Poverty

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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