Pakistan’s Street Child World Cup heroes used, abused and forced to scrape a living [Express Tribune]

Pakistan’s Street Child World Cup heroes used, abused and forced to scrape a living [Express Tribune]

by Natasha Raheel

KARACHI: From being somebody one day to being nobody the other is the story of the footballers who won bronze at the 2014 Street Child World Cup.

Following an initial rush of media coverage where everyone lined up to appreciate the impoverished children who had defied the odds to achieve something so remarkable, those same street children are now lost in obscurity.

Defender Mehr Mustafa, one such child, is suffering from chikungunya in the slums of Ibrahim Hyderi and is one of many such cases who have seen the ugly underbelly of the NGO-business in Pakistan.

Azad Foundation, a famous NGO, had picked up nine children back in 2013 and sent them to the 2014 Street Child World Cup, with Mehr, along with Raziq Mushtaq, Sameer Ahmed and Aurangzeb Baloch being a part of the group.

The children made headlines all over the world with their triumph in Brazil and earned a lot of respect and praise for their achievement.

Naturally, with so many people involved and NGOs receiving a lot of funding for unearthing such talent, many expected these street children to, at the very least, escape their penurious past.

Sadly, as Mehr tells it, that is not the case.

“I used to be a fisherman when I was 14 before I was selected to go to Brazil,” Mehr told The Express Tribune. “I’m still a fisherman and will be heading back to the sea because I don’t know what else is there for me.

“I went to Brazil twice, Norway thrice; went to the US, China and got to Cambridge for two months, but when I came back, my house still doesn’t have a gas connection. I’m poor like I was before. I never got the education that was promised by Azad Foundation. Now I’m suffering from this disease chikungunya, and they are the least bit concerned by how I am. What was the point of all the promises, when my country can’t even remember me?

“I don’t have money to get treated for this disease either. Does Azad Foundation care? All I get from them now is verbal abuse and empty promises that they would help me build my house, which is in shambles. The Sindh Government promised us that we’ll get an education till we became University graduates, but no one has even enrolled us in schools. My salvation seems to be in the sea now, right where I started. ”

It has been a year since Mehr, now 18, came back from Brazil but there are no signs of any support to come.

More so, he even doubled as a cook for Azad Foundation when the team went to play at the 2016 Norway Cup, with the promise of being compensated for his services. It goes without saying he got nothing.

The team, meanwhile, finished third in the competition which featured junior kids from professional clubs — a remarkable achievement that brought no monetary rewards for the participants.

Mehr further revealed that in addition to the hollow promises, representatives of the Azad Foundation verbally abused the children when they raised their voices about why they weren’t being paid for their services or why weren’t they getting the education that was promised to them.

“It has been tough for all of us,” said Mehr. “My family even had days when we didn’t have anything to eat because Azad Foundation never paid the money they had promised. They used us in the worst way and it all started at the end of our tour in China; they stopped paying us our salaries because we asked questions about why we aren’t getting the money that was given for us by the government, why aren’t we getting the education and why are we abused verbally all the time.”

Raziq, Aurangzeb and Sameer said that they were forced to cancel their contracts with Azad Foundation, mostly because they would not get their salaries or would only get them once in two or three months.

“Why would we leave Azad Foundation if they had treated us like human beings,” said Raziq, who was a fruit vendor in Mauripur before getting picked for Brazil. “They told us that they would only pay my five-month salary if I resign. Then there would be a constant verbal abuse that was getting worse each day. They would pay us Rs25,000 in the beginning when we came back from Brazil, then a year later it was reduced to Rs18,000 and that money was never given to us on time either.

“We would get our pay for one month after three months. Last year when we returned from China, we made up our minds that it was unfair. They asked us to sign a contract which stated that all the money that we receive on tours would be theirs, even the jerseys or shoes that we would get from tournament organisers. We played for Pakistan mainly, we helped Azad Foundation get the recognition which brought them a lot of funding from abroad, but we can’t even keep our jerseys.”

Talking about the conditions of the Azad Foundation;s dingy shelter, where the street children were housed, Aurangzeb revealed that it wasn’t a shelter at all and had no facilities, food or a system to accommodate anyone.

There were no beds, food or any training facilities as promised by Azad Foundation and most of the days the children had to sleep on an empty stomach.

“They wouldn’t give us food either and it was thanks to Mehr that we got to have decent meals when we were training in Ibrahim Hyderi, but at the shelter there was nothing. Usually we would sleep hungry and when we would ask for our salaries they would tell us to wait. We stayed mum for so long because we really believed that things would get better and our coach told us to be patient. All of us support our families, we need the money so we endured the abuse until it became unbearable,” said Aurangzeb.

Raziq explained that the children decided to take a stand against Azad Foundation when the NGO completely stopped the payments made to Mehr.

“We thought it was best to ask them about their plans for us in the future as we were all over-aged and couldn’t be fielded in U16 tournaments anymore. Then it became clear that they were taking money using our name from abroad.

“We had very kind people in Norway who wanted to meet us; they would give us money too, but Azad Foundation’s Irfan Maqbool would always take it from us. We were not even allowed to talk,” explained Raziq.

Similarly, coach Rashid said that he was disappointed in himself for ever letting the children come to Azad Foundation.

Rashid had played for local teams before he turned into a coach, and he singlehandedly prepared the team for Brazil in 2014 till last year.

He was the one to pick each boy for the camp and had taken the responsibility for their well-being.

“They are all very poor, but talented, “said Rashid. “When Azad Foundation hired me, they told me that they wanted to take the team to Brazil and we all agreed. These children have amazing talent, and they have been exploited in the worst way possible. I was their coach; they didn’t even pay me the salary for my work, but last year when we were in Cambridge we were talking to Street Child United Co-Founder John Wroe, and he told us that they are sponsoring our tour, but Azad Foundation had asked us to hand over the money for that visit too.”

Rashid said that he has the documents and proof that Azad Foundation only gave him Rs90,000 for a two-month camp including the expenses for food and accommodation.

“How can anyone run a camp of 22 players in Rs90,000?” said Rashid. “How can they expect us to win cups in US, Norway and China against professional teams when we don’t even have basic food to feed our players? They get the funding from different foreign organisations, but it was never spent on us. Sindh Government had promised to give me a job; that never happened either.”

On the other hand, the players said that nine-time national champions PIA offered the players professional contracts but Azad Foundation blocked that move as well.

“We were approached by PIA; they wanted to hire us after the 2014 Street Child World Cup and told us that they directly wanted to take us in the team, but Azad Foundation claimed that PIA should sign a contract with them instead of the players. It was clear that they were not letting us grow,” said Raziq.

Raziq, Mehr, Sameer and Aurangzeb, along with Rashid, feel that it is time that Azad Foundation put an end to their programme as none of the children in the on-going camp in Karachi would benefit in future.

“All the money and all the perks are for Azad Foundation officials; they abused us, now they will do the same with a fresh batch,” said Raziq. “We don’t want that and also we want to know what is going to happen to us now.”

Meanwhile, when The Express Tribune contacted Azad Foundation director Itfan Maqbool, he said that all the former Street Child team players are well-off, educated and playing for PIA.

“The players are all doing well, the new camp is on as well with new players from all over the country,” said Maqbool. “The older players are still with us, but they are now playing with departmental teams and are old enough to take care of themselves, as we have groomed them to be professionals. They are playing with PIA.”

On the other hand, PIA ‘s former coach Shamim Khan, who was working with the team in 2014, verified that the departmental team was indeed interested in picking the street child world cup players, but Azad Foundation had tried to bargain with the PIA managing director and chairman at the time.

Khan added that he had seen the players train before going to Brazil as PIA would also train at the same ground in Sharafi Goth. In his observation, Azad Foundation was holding the children and even the coach Rashid almost hostage without letting them talk to anyone.

“These children are telling the truth that we approached them,” said Shamim. “Rashid was also a very good person and I felt even he was not being himself but somehow he talked to me about getting him and the players in PIA team. Azad Foundation officials came to us when we approached the players, but their goals were very different; it’s not the children they want to work on. The asked our director for more deals besides football so we distanced ourselves.”

Unfortunately, there are many such NGOs who present themselves to be saviours but have nothing but selfish agendas on their minds. They do not care about the well-being of the people they use to climb up the ladder and once their purpose is served, they discard them like a used tissue.

Azad Foundation had all of us blinded by what they really are and it’s only when these children’s sufferings went beyond the threshold of being bearable, did we actually get to see their ugly faces.

The officials, as reported above, continue to maintain their story of grooming the kids; but for those who have actually seen the children and the lives they lead, the claims of these officials cannot be farther from the truth.

Published in The Express Tribune, 13 April 2017