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Tehran opens home for street children

TEHRAN, Iran, May 22, 2000 (AFP) - Tehran has opened a home for street children, whose numbers have been rising as Iran's economy descends deeper into difficulties. The Green House, a modest building in northern Tehran, opened its doors at the beginning of April to try to stem the tide of childhood misery.

"Opening the Green House was an absolute necessity. The problem of street children has been growing for about 10 years. Now it has become urgent," the home's director, Mostafa Jan-Qoli, said.

About 20,000 children live on the streets of Iran's larger cities, but most of them reside in Tehran, a city with a population of more than 10 million. The problem has been fuelled by poverty and aggravated by the economic crisis triggered by lower oil revenues.

When oil prices fell, Iran was still suffering the economic and social consequences of its 1980-88 war with Iraq, an uncontrolled rural exodus, a number of earthquakes which left thousands of villagers homeless and the presence of two million Afghan and Iraqi refugees.

Officially, Iran's unemployment rate is 14 percent. Every year, several thousand jobs are created, while 800,000 Iranians join the workforce. Half of the country's population of 60 million is under the age of 20.

"For now, the center is only a transit point" for youngsters aged 11 to 19, who are rounded up by a specially trained squad," Jan-Qoli said.

Tehran has about 50 areas where homeless children and adolescents are concentrated, and sometimes sleep in abandoned vehicles.

By day, they work as itinerant merchants, wash car windshields at red lights or beg for a few riyals. Some of the children who are not yet five years old crouch in doorways and risk being trampled by the crowds. Other children, not much older, offer to shine the shoes of passersby.

"Legally, these children are not allowed to work. Iran has signed all the conventions protecting children's rights," the Green House director said. One of the center's aims is to re-unite children with their parents, if they have parents. Another is to prevent delinquency.

"We can't deny that small-time delinquency has appeared in Tehran, and we must do everything to fight this problem, said Jan-Qoli, whose center is considered a "model" by the municipality.

"Delinquency is absolutely not tolerated by Iranian society and is harshly condemned," he said.

So far, the center has taken in 79 children. Eighteen of them were to remain because there was no other place for them. But 10 of the 18 ran away, preferring life on the street.

"Some cases are extremely difficult," Jan-Qoli said, "but often we are able to provide them with a lot of affection to establish a dialogue."

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who was elected two years ago Sunday with overwhelming support from the young, has stressed that he wants to give them a better life.

The president, who has relaxed cultural restrictions, remains popular despite the economic problems.