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For six kids in Kabul, a chance

Six children living in an alley will get help - money - and attention, but only if they go to school.

By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2003


KABUL, Afghanistan -- Imagine rush hour on U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor.

Now add bicycles, pushcarts loaded with fish and children darting in and out trying to sell flowers.

This is Sunday afternoon in Kabul.

Here, there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of children and adults living on the streets and trying to earn money any way they can.

Five, maybe six, are at the start of a long journey out.

I am traveling with Darren McCollester, a photographer from Getty Images, and Malcolm Garcia, a reporter from the Knight Ridder newspapers.

Both have been here much longer than I, and are much braver. Both have been busy. Malcolm has been active.

In Kabul, he found six children living in an alley. Most of us would walk past. He did not.

Instead, he talked to them. He learned they were not in school. They had little in the way of families and less in the way of money.

He decided to help.

But rather than turning over cash, he demanded effort. They have to go to school. They have to take care of themselves. They have to show progress.

His accomplice in this is a Kabul man we call Bro.

Bro, who drives and interprets for Malcolm, has taken these kids under his wing. Each day at 4 p.m., they come from school to a pharmacy here, where Bro checks their homework. When he can, Malcolm is there, too. Asking how they are, and rewarding them for their effort with money -- and, most important, attention.

There is Mr. Bakhsish, who was an expert at begging for free tips (bak-sheesh, in the Dari language). With him are Mr. Ten Dollar, Mr. Meat, Mr. Gigolo (because of his cool sunglasses) and Mr. Nike (he has a jacket).

There is also Mr. Chocolate. But he stopped going to school and Malcolm told him the free ride was over.

On Sunday night, Mr. Chocolate was outside our hotel in Kabul. He wants back in and he promises to go to school.

Malcolm is dubious, but he will give him a chance -- when he earns it.

As for the others, they have been going to school for three months now. Bro meets with them every day, and even local police officers here near Chicken Street are quick to report on the kids' progress.

Is it better than a massive, multibillion-dollar aid program? I don't know.

But today, Mr. Bakhsish and the others have a chance. Three months ago, they did not.

The boy with the pen

QALAI NASRO, Afghanistan -- I gave this boy a pen the other day. A piece of paper, too.

I really shouldn't have given him anything. When visiting villages, a small act like that can set off a stampede. Kids are trampled as everyone tries to get whatever is being handed out without even knowing what it is.

Sort of like Gasparilla. With much more dire consequences.

But everywhere I go, children ask for my pen. I have it out while taking notes, and it immediately draws attention. There are few schools here, and even fewer school supplies. It is more than just a desire for a trinket. The kids really need it.

So I have taken to bringing a backup. And I gave one to this boy, who had followed me for much of the day. I hope he gets to use it.

I don't know his name. I didn't want to draw any more attention to the pen (or the backup), so I didn't stop to talk to him much. I think he is 4.

That means he might make it.

About 25 percent of Afghan children die before their 6th birthday. That's among the worst in the world, according to figures released Sunday in Kabul by UNICEF. About 16 percent of live births die as infants here.

In all honesty, those statistics would never have meant much to me in St. Petersburg. They aren't real. They don't matter.

Until you are surrounded by little kids younger than 6.

Our youngest son just turned 6. That he would make it to that age was never in doubt.

I hope the boy with the pen gets there, too.

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