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With Help from JDC and Israel, Center Helps Turkey’s Street Kids

May 8, 2003
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On an unseasonably warm spring day, five young children in dust-covered clothes make their way through a crowded city park, offering candies and tissues for sale.

Reyhan Yilmaz, a 10-year-old girl with a shy smile and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, says she sells candy every day of the week, starting in the early afternoons as soon as she gets out of school.

“I sell candies so that I can buy notebooks,” she says quietly.

Reyhan says she earns about one million Turkish liras every day, or about 70 cents. She can’t remember how long it has been since she started selling her green candies on Diyarbakir’s streets.

Reyhan is among an estimated 9,000 children working on the streets in this economically-struggling city of 900,000, a major center in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.

Selling candies and tissue or working giving shoeshines, some of the impoverished kids, like Reyhan, still go to school. But a large number of them simply work all day long.

Many of those, experts say, eventually end up not just working but also living on the street.

Now children in Diyarbakir have had a better shot at leaving street-selling behind: Since 1999 the city has had a center for street children, offering them educational activities and social work assistance designed to keep them from leaving school or home.

The center is the first of its kind in Turkey, but it’s also unique in another way: Much of the funding comes from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an organization better known for its relief work with distressed Jewish communities around the globe.

Steven Schwager, the JDC’s executive vice president, says the Diyarbakir children’s center is one of several non-sectarian projects the organization supports in places like Kosovo, Honduras and Rwanda.

“We’ve been in business as a humanitarian relief and welfare organization for 90 years,” Schwager says. “Things that are applicable to the Jewish community can also be applied to other communities.”

In Diyarbakir, the JDC has provided the center — which also receives funding from the Turkish government — with computer and music rooms and an arts-and-crafts studio.

The organization also has brought in Israeli social workers to hold training seminars, and brought the center’s director to Israel to observe Israeli social service agencies in action.

The JDC also is helping to open a similar center in Adiyaman, another city in southeastern Turkey with a large population of street children.

JDC “showed us how to deal with some of the problems of the street children, with the help of the experts who came from Israel,” says Remziye Arslan Ulas, 32, a social worker who is the center’s founder and director.

“Before they came, we didn’t have an idea of how effective our work was, but their evaluation helped us see the positive and negative points of our work,” Arslan Ulas says.

Most importantly, she adds, the JDC’s material and economic support has meant the small staff of around 10 people can focus on working with the children.

A Diyarbakir native, Arslan Ulas says the idea of opening a center for the street children came to her while she was working as a social worker at a local orphanage.

“For children to work in the street or work in a shop is not unusual. It’s part of our custom, since a lot of Kurdish people want their children to be exposed to work,” she says. “But a lot of them were begging or using drugs or being abused sexually. These were the risks they were being exposed to.”

The center is in contact with close to 4,000 children, offering direct care to around 630 of them. The kids range in age from four to 15.

In the center’s library, a quiet room with six small round tables, Belda Turfan, 15, is working on formulas in a trigonometry textbook.

Belda has been coming to the center since it opened four years ago. Before that, she says, she was selling tissues on the street every day. Her parents forbid her to go to school, though she attended lessons occasionally at a community center.

The center’s social workers were able to convince her parents to let Belda start attending school, telling them that an education would be the best way for her to help the family, which has nine children.

“It was really wonderful to be in school,” says Belda, who is dressed in her school uniform, a navy blue vest and tie over a white shirt. “It felt really good because it was the biggest opportunity of my life. It was the best chance for my future.”

Children like Belda come to the center, a two-story building in the center of town filled with brightly painted classrooms, for classes and counseling. Social workers also visit the children’s homes to check on the economic and familial situation.

Besides visiting family homes, the center’s social workers also go around Diyarbakir looking for working children who don’t know about the center.

Walking down a busy street lined with clothing shops, Irfan Polat, 27, a social worker at the center, spots a group of young street sellers.

“Why aren’t you going to school? What are you selling and not playing football?” he asks the young kids, a few of whom are holding shoeshine boxes.

One of the kids, an 11-year-old wearing beaten-up plastic shoes who has been working on the streets for five years, says he works because his father doesn’t.

Polat asks him for his home address.

“Don’t be scared,” he tells the young boy. “I will just visit to talk to your father and mother. They won’t be angry with you.”

Not all the children are working because their families have no alternative, Polat says.

“If there are 10,000 kids working on the street, half of them are not doing it because of bad economic situations,” he says. “Their parents are ignorant and think they can use the kids to earn more money.”

Polat continues up the street and approaches a group of street sellers playing on the sidewalk.

“They’re happy,” Polat says. “People love them and sometimes give them money. They have friends in the street. But they don’t know anything else, like school or culture.”

Polat speaks from experience: As a child, he sold ice cream on the streets for eight years.

“Now I’m feeling the pain of it,” he says. “When you get older, you see what you missed.”

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