“Buy a candy bar lady . . . buy one please.”
I feel a hand tugging on my “monto” and turn to see a kid not older then six, dirty and dressed in rages behind me. She repeats : “Buy one; you have to buy a candy bar.”
I want to turn around and leave knowing that if I feel this sorry for every kid I see I'll probably be bankrupt by the time I reach home. But I can't help it. So I take out some money from my wallet and hand it over to her. Just as I am about to walk away I see another kid run towards me and say: “Buy a chocolate bar; you have to buy one . . . ”
It's the same story until I get home. I lose count of all the little peddlers I encounter.
I don't exactly know when all of this started but since I've moved here I've seen them grow in number day by day. Who are they? Where do they come from? Whom do they belong to? These are all unanswered questions about the children scattered all over the city.
There is one on Chaaraaheh Pasdaran who is famous for kicking people who don't buy anything from him. I haven't gotten any beatings myself but I've seen others arguing with him from across the street. And there's another in Valiasr who never has a shirt on, no matter what the season.
The biggest problem is that no one is willing to take responsibility. The municipality says that this matter is not their concern. “I don't know. Go ask the health and welfare organization. It's their responsibility,” their young employee tells me.
At the same the time the organization stated that the children out in the streets should be taken care of and put into orphanages by the municipality. Go figure.
I ask a nurse who works in one of Tehran's orphanages. “We're supposed to be paid by the health and welfare organization , but they don't give us a penny. The only money we get comes from ordinary people. In this situation even if those children were brought here we wouldn't know what to do with them.”
She goes on to say : “A rich bazaari paid for the reconstruction of the building, and Mrs. Sadr gave us the money for the curtains and the bed sheets. And she also donated most of the children's clothing.” This is one of the poorest orphanages in the city. They can't even afford uniforms so all the kids could dress alike.
“She gives us anything you can imagine,” the nurse continues. “Tooth brushes, story books, laundry detergent, soaps, socks, etc.”
As I'm walking in the street I recall the first time I met Mrs. Sadr. At the blow of the whistle we all gathered around to meet the new gym teacher — a plump, tall middle-aged woman. I really don't know why I liked her so much from the beginning.
She would come every month asking for donations. This made some kids snicker and laugh about how “If she wants money for herself why doesn't she just say so? What's this stupid donation excuse?”
“Oh, I've been through that many times,” she herself says. “When I first began collecting donations from neighbors some would say the lousiest things and shut the door in my face. My own husband would tease me. I don't know why the concept is so strange to some people. But eventually I got through to most of them.”
Last year alone she gave the orphanage 15 million tomans — not including all the clothing, cleaning supplies and food. Fifteen million might not be much, but it's a lot for only one person to give.
“Most of it comes from people who 'nazr'. An old man who had cancer and thought he was going to die gave me three million tomans. That's the most anyone's ever donated. But you couldn't imagine how much the small donations add up.”
The hardest part of her job? “Seeing people suffer from so close. There's not much besides that except when I ask people for clothing and they give me their old dirty rags. Then I have to spend one whole day separating the good stuff from the bad. But that's just the way it is with some people.”
So why does she do it? “I've wondered about that many times. I can say it's the fact that when I put my head on the pillow at night I know that a child is going to bed, fed and dressed because of something I've done. I just feel responsible. If even a quarter of the population felt the same, we would be a thousand times better off.”
And what about the kids out in the streets? “The funny thing is that NO ONE seems to know where they come from and it's just not that hard to find out. I really don't know why they don't do something about them. Unfortunately I can't either.”
Why should a six-year-old child, who should be playing with her dolls or staring up at the sky at nights wondering the weirdest things which make no sense to anyone but herself, be forced to work at such a young age?
Finding the answers shouldn't be that hard but it's turned into one of the city's biggest mysteries. I've tried to find out myself and as the saying goes, “zaboonam moo darovord” from all the asking. No one seems to know.
There is a marvelous story of a man who once stood before God, his heart breaking from the injustice and pain in the world. “Dear God,” he cried out, “look at all the suffering, the anguish and distress in your world. Why don't you send help?"
God responded, ” I did send help. I sent you.”
Najmeh Fakhraie is a 16-year-old student in Tehran.