Lending a hand to the beggars of Byzantium

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Sarah McNeill meets a man attempting to rebuild shattered young lives amid the ruined ramparts of Istanbul.

In Istanbul, a city eager to impress Brussels and Strasbourg, street children are unwanted. The youngest, often just four or five years old, peddle packets of tissues. The older ones, who hide during the day, shunned by the community and hunted by the police, are driven to acts of desperation in their fight for survival.

Yusuf Ahmet Kulca started life as one of them. Of mixed Turkish and Chinese parentage and orphaned by the age of seven, he grew up on the city streets. Having first joined the army and later qualified as a journalist, he now works on a shoestring to help the city's dispossessed children.

"The very young," he says, "are not in fact homeless or abandoned. They are put out to work in twos or threes to bring money back to families trapped in such poverty that even the small amount a child can earn makes a difference. We cannot even give them clothes. Looking ragged is part of the act. Another ploy to get more money."

Yusuf Kulca has photographs of of how these young people live and the way some of them die.

One is of the waxen body of a 14-year-old lying on a mortuary slab. His head is shaved. Neatly sutured edges of several knife wounds extend across his chest and stomach. It is a savage record of stabbings, burns and self-inflicted mutilation that shocks.

Yusuf Kulca works mainly for such groups, the ones who remain unseen, spending their days hiding under motorway bridges or in ruined buildings. Their reasons for leaving home are probably the same as those of teenagers in any other city.

Climbing up the ramparts that once formed part of the defences of the ancient city of Byzantium, Kulca enters an opening high in the massive wall. It leads through to a corridor that in turn connects a number of dank rooms. Light falls on the haunted features of seven youths aged between 14 and 20. Despite the heat outside, they wear ill-fitting winter coats. Two of them laugh gently. Their faces are glue-scabbed and the smell of solvent masks that of urine.

Kulca brings food and clothing. He eats with them, keeps them washed, with clean teeth, and hair free of lice. It is an education in simple but vital skills; personal hygiene, basic nutrition, self-help. The boys have come to trust him and know that if they need to they can reach him by phone.

The previous night he had been called out at 3am to help a boy who was bleeding badly. Kulca took him to hospital and stayed to make sure he was given medical attention. "They are nearly all injured," he said. "A teenage boy feels anger. He wants a fight. He slashes himself to show he'd do it to someone else."

The Association for Protecting and Developing Children and Youth Without Shelter was set up in Istanbul by Kulca in 1992. It tries to help, educate and reintegrate, and the work is planned in four stages. The first involves establishing contact with children and building trust. Next comes practical education, making sure children are able to clothe and feed themselves, keep clean and stay healthy. After that the group organises therapy, counselling and provides information if necessary.

The final stage aims to reunite children with their families. This requires finding the parents, checking that they want the child back and that the child wants to return.

Unfortunately, in a city of 6.5 million, the association has only three co-workers, who are able to be in contact with no more than 25 children at once.The government pays for three offices in Istanbul.

"There are no plans to make it residential," says Kulca, "our teaching has to be done on the street."

Sarah Whitmore, a visiting street educator from Jakarta, whose work parallels that of Kulca's, agrees: "There's no point spending funds on one big centre. The children won't come."

She explains that a group in Jakarta who were taken into an institution are now dependent on hand-outs. "For street children, independence is one of their strengths. Institutions take that away from them. These children are good at solving problems," she said.

The MMKRESCUE project in Jakarta is a partnership between four local community groups, an American organisation and the US Agency for International Development. The project approach is based on observation of street children's own survival strategies and recognises that once a child finds a place to sleep - in a doorway, under a bridge or at the train station - he or she will not wander too far.

So intervention takes place where the children are. RESCUE uses the children's own network of friends to trickle down news of the kerbside "schools" where children can meet a street teacher. The focus is practical. First aid is top of the list; sources of cheap food a close second; how-your-body-works and institutions-that-will-accept-you are also covered; information on sex, smoking and solvent abuse is provided; how to cope with verbal harassment, legal education and basic literacy are included as well, all of which add up to what Sarah Whitmore calls "street literacy".

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