Giving Ankara’s working kids a chance to just be kids
In the busy downtown center of Ankara, a boy uses his small hands to put a tray filled with simit, sesame-covered bread rings, over his head and starts shouting, “fresh simit.”
Across the street, another young boy is sitting under a tree holding a couple of small boxes of bandages in his hand for someone to buy. These kids are just a couple of the children that work on the streets of Ankara. They are forced to work on the streets after school or over the weekend in order to supplement their family's income.
While life is difficult for children working on the streets, those in Ankara have one place they can go where they can act like children. Located in Ankara's Sıhhiye district, the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality's Center for Children Working on Ankara's Streets is a safe haven for working children, offering several different kinds of support, including educational, recreational and health services.
Mücahit Türkcan, a 16-year-old boy who is a member of the center, began coming to the center when he was just 9 years old. He describes it as a place where “impossible dreams can come true.” He said he always had a passion for drawing but was never able to pursue it until he started coming to the center because he did not make enough money to pay for art classes. There he found immense support from the center's art teachers. “I began coming every day after school and on the weekends just so I could learn how to draw better and be with my friends,” Türkcan said, eagerly pointing out the wall in the art room decorated with his meticulous drawings. The teenager no longer works on the streets and focuses all of his energy on developing his talent so he can qualify for admission into a fine arts course in the future.
Among the many children painting and drawing at their own tables, 13-year-old Özgür Özyürek quickly stood up to point out the drawing that won him a trip Macedonia. Noting that he participated in an art competition co-sponsored by the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality, the Macedonia Embassy and the International Interaction Society, Özyürek said the center has given him the opportunity to do things and visit places he would otherwise never have the chance to do or visit. While Özyürek continues to work on the street selling simit in order to support his family, he is happy that there is a place he can go where he can find support and have fun. He said he is determined to stay in school and hopes to become a teacher one day.
Next to the art room there is a computer room and a craft room. While the kids in the computer room were busy playing games, in the craft room, 15-year-old Bahadır Can was excited to talk about his achievements and projects at the center. “I used to work in a workshop cutting aluminum, but now I don't work. I come here because I love to build mock-up homes. This place is super,” he said, adding, “I am very happy here.”
Mustafa Kara, the head of the Center for Children Working on Ankara's Streets, said: “We want these children to feel like children here. We want them to be able to have fun in a safe environment. We provide just about every kind of activity here, from sports to art, from education to health services.”
Families are a big obstacle
While the center is open for all working children, Kara explained that generally families do not bring their children here on their own initiative.
“There are three steps involved in getting children here and off the streets. The first step is to locate children working on the streets. To do this we send out field workers to gather data on how many children are working on the streets and in which areas they are working. The second step is to approach these children and tell them about the center. We explain to them our services and invite them to become a member of the center. The third and most difficult step is meeting with the parents and family. We try to convince them to stop sending their children out to the streets to work,” Kara explained.
He also explained that it is essential for people to develop a better understanding about the concept of children working on the streets. “If people understand who these kids are and why they are on the streets, if they understand that these kids are on the street not by choice but due to the economic needs of their families, it will help them abandon their negative views and approaches toward these kids,” he said, adding that showing care and concern for these children will help them to stop feeling estranged from society. The municipality and the center organize various training activities such as seminars and workshops and distribute brochures to build public awareness and promote social change.
Ahmet Yılmaz, the head of the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality Family and Child Services Unit, explained that they want children to feel like “they are not alone” and added: “We want them to know that they are protected by the government and valued by society. We want them to have confidence and trust and be hopeful about the future.”
Center keen on education
The Center for Children Working on Ankara's Streets was founded by a protocol signed between the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality and the International Labor Organization International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (ILO-IPEC) in 1992, and the center was officially opened in 1993.
The center's mission includes ensuring that children working on the street register for school and stay in school, providing support services and financial assistance to children that have dropped out of school because of financial difficulties, dealing with issues the children have at school, dealing with problems they have with their families and providing a safe environment for them where they can have fun with their peers.
There are a total of 1,338 children who worked on the streets who have registered with the center. Of this number, 228 no longer work on the streets.
There are about 20 teachers at the center who have all the credentials to teach the children various subjects as well as professionals to offer psychological and social support. A file is kept on each child that comes to the center and is updated every few months to make note of any progress. The children have the opportunity to use computers, select books from the library, play games, learn different skills and develop talents they can use to find jobs in the future and positively integrate into the society. Free karate, judo and taekwondo lessons are also offered to the children.
If any of the children require medical attention, there is a place in the center that provides first-aid treatment. If additional medical care is required, the children are admitted to a local hospital. All medical expenses, including surgery, are paid for by the municipality.