Ana works from sunrise to sunset. In the mornings, as people are on their way to work, she begs on the street. The rest of the day she scavenges through a mountain of trash search of scrap metals, plastics and clothes that others have discarded, but which represent a chance to survive for Ana and her family.
The circumstances of those who must beg and collect rubbish to live are heart-breaking, but Ana is only a child. At just 4 years old, she works like an adult, trying to earn a living to stay alive. She has no time for kindergarten; no time for playing in the park with her friends, and no energy left at the end of the day to dream about her future. She doesn’t even know what day it is.
Ana, her sister, Ema, 13, and their parents live together with 20 other Romani families in a dark corner of Pshkopia city, in Albania’s Dibra region. What they call “home” is nothing but a small hut made out of recycled plastic and blankets, most of which were found in the garbage. Inside, there are just two improper beds were the three children: Ana, Ema, Sara, (their 9-month-old sister) and their parents sleep, a broken heater and a small table; nothing more.
Despite the extreme temperatures and filth, neither Ana nor the other children complain about the chore of sifting through the mountain of trash. Instead, they go about the job methodically, selling the bags with recycled plastic as soon as they are full. The $2 (USD) they get for the bags doesn’t come close to meeting the family’s overwhelming needs. To try to help make ends meet any time they find clothes in the rubbish, they wash them for their own use as buying new clothes is financially impossible and an unneeded luxury when their lives are on the line.
With their hands and feet exposed, the little workers are literally surrounded by risks; risks of infection from cuts from picking through dirty garbage and disease being carried everywhere by the swarms of flies who also depend on the trash to stay alive. According to the children themselves, every day at least one childis injured on the job.
“Here, I find clothes I need and we sell the plastics to buy things to eat,” says Ana, with a maturity far beyond her years while her eyes scan the trash in front of her to see what useful or valuable items she might find. This is the only life and reality Ana has seen. Her older sister has a different perspective. “This is not the place for us,” says Ema.“But, this place contains our bread… If we don’t come here, how can we get food for ourselves? We could die of hunger,” she adds.
Ana’s parents do the same work. Their father leaves to work early in the morning and returns home late, usually with only $2 (USD) in his pocket. When he is lucky, he may come home with a bit more; $5 (USD) is the most he has ever earned in a day. But, there are also days when he earns nothing. After a day or two of no income, the girls and their mother are forced to beg, exposing them to other, arguably greater, risks.
“Strangers offer money to me to ‘hang out’ with them,” says Ema, who with her shining face and green eyes looks like an angel.
“Sending my children to beg really hurts my heart,” says Etleva, their mother.“But, we need to survive and begging and collecting is the only way we can earn money and survive,” she says, afraid their situation will never change.
Despite their circumstances, Etleva tries to protect her children any way she can. Not long ago, she scolded a young man trying to take advantage of her daughter’s situation.“I was there begging when a stranger started teasing my oldest daughter,” she remembers. “I saw him offering money to her and, alarmed, I shouted to him, ‘Shame on you! She is just a child and is here forced by the need, not by her desire,’” she remembers.
How much do children in Albania work? For the first time, we have a national research study on their employment. A study by INSTAT (Albanian Institute of Statistics) and ILO (International Labour Organization), based on interviews with 6,000 children between the ages of 5 and 17 years revealed that 7.7 per cent of Albanian children between the ages of 5 and 17 work, often beyond their capabilities. The study estimates that about 54,000 children in Albania work. Perhaps the most alarming part is that the study shows that a serious percentage of those who work, 2.4 per cent of the general population of children who work are between the ages of 5 and 11. Children who work average 18.7 hours a week.
[Children in Dibra (Ana's neighbours) collecting trash in the landfill nearby to help provide for their families. Photo by Klevisa Breshani/ World Vision]
World Vision is working in with the Romani families where Ana and Ema live. Through the sponsorship programme the children have benefited from activities like summer camps and received clothes and food to help them survive. World Vision also works with parents to help them understand and be able to better protect their children from risks, such as abuse and trafficking and helps both parents and their children dream of a better future.
*The names of the individuals in the story have been changed to protect their identities.
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