Our first contact on this journey with street children was in Serbia’s northern second city, Novi Sad. For the last two months Cycle Africa’s main purpose has been far from our thoughts as we’ve been concentrating solely on getting used to cycling every day and adjusting to life in the saddle, in tents and living from our panniers.
Our entrance to the city was a bit of a shock as we were swept from our quiet group of six into television and newspaper interviews, a brief welcome from the Minister for Children and Sport, and a brief but loud laughter yoga session in the main square. The next day, after a brief tour of the city and an appearance on the live Serbian breakfast show we were taken to visit Svratiste Za Decu Ulice, the only project working with the city’s estimated 400 children who are living on the streets.
The Cycle Africa team had agreed some time ago to take part in a laughter yoga session at the day centre with our very kind host Olivera, who runs the local club and who volunteers regularly to support the children. The session had been arranged for just before lunch to encourage the children and young people to attend and as we arrived we were greeted by a dozen nervous but inquisitive young people, and the team, led by the warm and big-hearted Nikola (see the photo below).
We respected the centre’s policy on not taking photos of the children as they are keen to maintain their confidentiality and to prevent the all too common ‘charity tourism’ effect that sees visitors taking away images of ‘poor/needy’ children for their albums and to show their friends.
The group had only two girls, one of whom looked a lot like a boy, according to Nikola this is a typical survival response to the added vulnerability they face in a very male and very tough environment. Looking like boys protects the girls up to a certain age. The youngest was a small boy of around five who quietly told us his name around the circle and who spent the whole session under the protective wing (literally) of one of the older more streetwise boys who must have been around 14 or 15.
The laughter yoga session and learning each others names broke the ice and soon we were running around laughing, while Scott and Loretta engaged in a dance-off with a few of the children to every type of music from American Hip Hop to the Macarena – they lost to a budding Michael Jackson, twirling and whirling around the floor.
Even the most ‘street’ of the group are thoroughly engaged in the laughing, which becomes infectious. None of them believe that we have cycled, on a bicycle, all the way from London. It’s impossible to comprehend what they must think of these British visitors who have come here in their matching shirts to meet them and spend a few hours before disappearing again to the relative safety of their own lives.
The centre is in the middle of a rough neighbourhood on the ground floor of a high rise tenement building. It was set up in 2009 and since then has worked with more than 200 of the city’s street children population who seasonally live and migrate through the area. Most of the children are from Romany families who have no homes themselves. The centre provides a safe place during the day, homework clubs, workshops on hygiene, outreach activities to tell more children about the centre and what support it can offer, psychosocial support, basic medical treatments and the team also plugs the children into social services, liaises with the police and other institutions of which the children are terrified.
“It sometimes takes us years to win the trust of these children, who are scared that we are social services and we are going to lock them up in an institution or cage or turn them over to the police for thieving or drug dealing,” says Nikola (26) who is a Psychologist and has managed the centre since it was set up.
Nikola was delighted to talk about the project, their successes and their challenges and what the future holds. “We have some funding from an Austrian organisation and through the Global Fund [a major grant giving foundation focused on HIV/AIDS prevention] but sustainability is my main concern. We are building trusting relationships with these children who have no one else but we don’t have funding from governments to last us long into the future and there are so many more children we could be helping. The only way is for us to get funding from the budgets of the local government, it is difficult but we are trying. There is no state funding for street children organisations in Serbia.”
At this point a young Romany boy of 12 comes up to Nikola, light brown skin and green eyes betray his heritage. He has an oversized cartoon-emblazoned rucksack on his back and starts arguing passionately in Serbian with Nikola. He gently places the rucksack on the floor and walks away, clearly upset and stands in the centre of the grassy square twisting a piece of straw in his hand. “He’s angry,” explains Nikola, “it’s his first day of school and he doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t know what to do and is frightened but won’t admit it, he is making up all sorts of excuses to not go.” Nikola wanders over to him and places one large hand on his shoulder, talking gently but firmly and the boy wanders over, picks up his rucksack and walks off around the corner, presumably on his way to school.
Nikola smiles and comes back. “They are just normal children, all children hate going to school!” Following this scene I ask him about the project’s neighbours and how they feel about having the project there. “Some of them are very friendly and some even bring food but most are unsure, they see the children as a pest and a nuisance, they steal and deal drugs, who would want to live next to them? But then where do they go? I hope that they see we are making things better but some people will never see that side.”
“We also have a problem in Serbia as the country wants to be perceived as wealthy, which country wants to be labelled as ‘poor’? So these sorts of issues are swept away and ignored as though the country doesn’t want to admit to having these sort of problems. Talking about this is important.”
He continues to describe the ways in which they are seeing improvements, laughing modestly he says, “it is probably not very impressive for people like you outside but we see massive changes in even little ways. Since the project started two years ago we have been telling the children that the first thing they must do when they come here is to wash their hands. They have been working on rubbish dumps and living in real poverty so hygiene is really important but no one has ever taught them about it. It was a real struggle initially but now they all do it naturally and tell each other off if they forget, it’s a small thing but it’s big for us and has taken a lot of work and patience.”
He is keen to assert that the team are not there to provide moral guidance but talk to the children, ask them questions and listen. “We are trying to prepare them for future life and for the difficult lives they have found themselves in but without judging them or acting like we have the answers.”
“These guys are vulnerable and they’re suspicious of authority as many have had bad experiences with the police and they don’t naturally seek help if they’ve injured themselves picking rubbish from the dumps or in fights, or if they’ve been attacked. We try to reduce the harm they face, if they’re going to overdose on drugs we’d much rather they do it here in the centre than under a bridge or in a city gutter where no one can help them.”
“They are now starting to come to us if they get hurt or get into trouble and the team patches them up or we send to them to the doctor if it’s bad. Most of the children are sexually active from around 10/11 so we talk to them about sexual health and preventing disease, also the Global Fund grant means that we have to do this. They are learning to ask for help and coming to us for help with their problems, rather than just surviving by themselves. These are all small but also very big steps. I hope that we can continue to provide the project long into the future but who knows?”
The boy with the rucksack is back now, Nikola rolls his eyes and welcomes him into the centre with a warm smile. School attendance is accepted to be too big a step for today without judgement, but who knows what will happen tomorrow?
As we leave the group the boy shakes our hands and Loretta and Jodi receive chivalrous kisses on their hands.
This is our first brush with street children and for some of us our very first contact with street children and the walk back to the hostel is quiet.
For me this has been an important reminder of why we are making this journey and that the issue of street children is not just present in Africa but in every major town and city from London to Cape Town and the children’s difficulties that Nikola and the team are working to help them with are the same the world over.
I’m also hopeful that by talking about some of the difficulties that street children are facing in Novi Sad during the television interview that morning and the press coverage, that Cycle Africa may have helped in a tiny way to support the project and their staff and maybe contribute towards them achieving another small step in the future.