ALBANIA- While we were waiting in the cold to meet Samet and his mother, the lively voices of children returning from school made the cold weather of winter warmer. This atmosphere disappeared in front of us as we saw the pale face of Samet; a 10-year-old boy who didn't look any older than six or seven years.
This tiny boy with a big smile works from early morning till late in the afternoon to provide an income for his family. For more than a year his parents, grandmother and his three siblings have been relying on the money he brings home everyday.
"When I saw other children who were different to me I felt very embarrassed to collect cans," says Samet.
Samet Hasani, part of the Roma minority, lives with his parents, Ilir 32 and Naxhie 29, his siblings Verioni, 8, Gaskia 3 and 11 month old Pranvera. Naxhie’s 46-year-old mother Pranvera also lives with them.
Originally they are from Shkodra, a two hour drive from the capital, Tirana, and they have been living in Tirana for about a year. While they were in Shkodra they lived in the house of Naxhie's grandmother, who died some years ago. After her death they lost the house, because closer relatives inherited it.
“After we lost the house we began living with different relatives. We decided to move to Tirana because we couldn’t find any work, not even cans to collect,” says Ilir, Samet’s father.
Moving from Shkodra to Tirana was like going from rain to hail stones. They came to Tirana for a better life but ended up in the midst of rubbish - literally. The high buildings around them do not allow other people to see the dirt, poverty, hunger and misery that exists among the tiny and crammed shacks, home to around 70 families and more than 100 children, most of whom work in the streets of Tirana.
Samet and his family live in one of these small shacks built with pieces of wood and covered with plastic. The door and the walls do not prevent the harsh and cold weather from getting inside.
Almost all the furniture inside came from rubbish bins around the city, because they can not afford to buy anything new.
Working at age eight
Samet is smart and a very sensitive young boy by nature. His mother says that one day she saw Samet leaving the house but she did not know where he went. "I remember my first day, I ran out of the house to collect cans without permission because I knew the situation at home," says Samet with tears in his eyes. "I couldn’t stay without doing anything while watching my father getting sicker every day and my family suffering."
Samet began work at age eight and he dropped out of school in the second grade, while Verjoni has never gone to school. His family says that he has had good results for the time he used to go to school, but he has started to forget how to write and read because he hasn’t attended for more than a year.
"When I went to school I woke up early in the morning, I washed my face, fixed my hair and I ran to school with joy,” remembers Samet, while this face shows happiness and sadness at the same time.
Over the last few months, Samet’s younger brother Verjoni has joined him in his work. He is only 8 years old and has suffered from epilepsy since he was very young, making it more dangerous for him to do this work.
Their parents, especially their father, feel helpless for the fact that Samet and his brother have to work and provide for everyone else. They want their children to lead normal lives, go to school, play with their friends and be the same as their peers.
Sick in body, sick of life
Ilir has been sick for about three years now, but last year his situation worsened. His pains are so severe that they do not allow him to get out of bed. "I've done all kinds of hard jobs in very harsh weather and this is the reason that I’m sick". Doctors have said that I could have a severe case of pneumonia, although I have to do other tests to confirm fully what I have, but I couldn’t do them due to our economic situation,” says Ilir. His wife says that he did not get all the proper medication that doctors gave him because they did not have money to buy them.
"We wouldn’t be in this situation if I wasn’t sick. Maybe we would have always been poor but at least Samet would be in school and wouldn’t have to collect cans in the street,” says Ilir.
"When I saw other children who were different to me I felt very embarrassed to collect cans..."
At the same time, Samet’s grandmother Pranvera suffers from severe depression and she is not able even to take care for Naxhie’s younger children.
“One day I went out looking for a job and I left the little children with my mother. When I came back I found my daughter injured because my mother got sick during the time and wasn’t at home and she fell down while she was holding my daughter,” says Naxhie.
The only solution was for little Samet to become the man of the house – before he was really old enough to take care of himself. His normal day involves travelling around Tirana with a cardboard box collecting cans and selling them, earning him around US$3-4 a day. His earnings buy food for the family and milk for his little sister- the only source of joy and hope for the whole family.
Once upon a time....
"There used to be a time when we did not have the worries we have now. We used to have a house, food to eat and I didn’t need to work because dad was working for us,” says Samet.
Now, Samet’s face is unhappy and as serious as an oppressed adult. His hands and face are unwashed and dirty from the hard work. He has no time to care for himself or anything that other children do, because he has to care for his younger brothers and little sister.
Samet’s toys are cans and his closer friends are other children who work and beg in the same streets.
"I really enjoy playing with my brothers or my friends, but I have no free time to do that, because I have to work," says Samet.
Children who work or beg in the streets face different risks such injuries, exposure in cold weather, being insulted or beaten by the other children or adults, accidents from cars, and perhaps most frightening of all, trafficking, etc.
“It often happens that Samet comes home sick from the rain and cold,” says Naxhie. “Sometimes he comes home bloody and beaten up.”
"Some people insult us because we are not white," says Samet.
His mother says that very often he gets cheated out of money by the people he takes the scrap to, because he does not know the correct weight.
"Often he hides somewhere and cries loudly and we feel powerless to help him," says the grandmother.
She adds crying, "Sometimes the children come home tired and do not find anything to eat because no one has brought home money for that day.”
Samet goes to a centre that provides food for street children, but this does not happen every day.
“He does not eat the food he gets at the centre; he brings it to his siblings who have nothing to eat,” says Pranvera, Samet’s grandmother.
“I wish to go back to school”
But this unrelenting poverty has not completely discouraged or destroyed these children’s hopes and dreams for the future.
"I wish to go back to school,” says Samet while his eyes sparkle with joy. His face assumes a different expression while he talks about school. “I also would love to have a laptop."
"My biggest dream is to have a safe house where the rain and the cold don’t get inside,” he adds.
Through World Vision’s Sponsorship project in Shkodra Area Development Programme (ADP), Samet and his brother took part in several activities, including Summer camps and received free dental care. Samet loved to receive cards and gifts from his sponsor in the United Kingdom. “I was really happy when it was the time to receive her letter. She was my friend and I could feel her love,” says Samet with joy.
When Samet and his family moved to Tirana they moved out of the umbrella of sponsorship. “The biggest challenge of working with this target group is that they move often in different areas and this is normal to them. These cause big challenges with regular sponsorship monitoring of these children”, explain ADP staff. According to Sponsorship requirements, if a child lives more than three months outside the ADP area he/she cannot participate in the Sponsorship project and maintain a sponsor because the funds would not be benefiting that child. This is not only Samet’s case, but also the case of many other Roma and Egyptian children who work or beg in the street.
“This is the most difficult target group that we work with in an ADP but we hope that God through our work will change the attitudes and situation with child labour and will improve children’s lives,” says Valmira Cook, Shkodra ADP Manager.
Currently World Vision is collaborating and coordinating with other partners in Tirana, to introduce these children and their families into other programmes that cover the areas in which they live and to relocate the documentation, etc, necessary to enrol the children into formal education.