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Sudanese kids flock to city streets. Rising numbers fuel fears they will pose a major social problem

The Sudanese call them shamasa -- ``children without protection from the sun.'' There are perhaps 5,000 of them living in poverty on the streets of Khartoum. ``We never used to have this problem of street children,'' sighs Ahmed Musa, a longtime resident of Khartoum, Sudan's capital. ``But nowadays you find them all over town, wandering around with nothing to do. We are very worried that if something significant isn't done soon, we are going to have a major social problem on our hands.''

Migration to urban centers is common in developing countries. In Sudan, however, this movement has been intensified by successive years of drought and famine in the countryside. While the larger towns are absorbing influxes of rural people, Khartoum has become a particular magnet for youths.

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``Most of these kids don't come here because their families are rejecting or abusive; it's just poverty,'' says Marie de la Soudiere, a consultant for vagrant children at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Khartoum. ``They feel that the city has something to offer them.''

Ms. de la Soudiere estimates that there has been a tenfold increase in the shamasa population in the last two years. Consequently, it is only recently that the problem has attracted enough attention to cause concern. In neighboring Ethiopia, the problem is even worse -- an estimated 15,000 children roam the city streets there.

Traditionally, the extended family in Africa has served as a fallback in time of distress. A poor family might give a child to relatives to raise. The economic malaise and severe food shortages of the last two years, however, have undermined this option.

``Now,'' says de la Soudiere, ``a child is just another mouth to feed.''

Khartoum is feeling the consequences of these extra mouths. Throughout the city, in markets and public squares, outside public offices, along main thoroughfares, ragged and dusty youths -- almost all of them boys -- roam, beg, or loiter.

Their presence is not threatening, but there is increasing concern that the longer they remain here, without adult or personal direction, the more threatening -- physically and socially -- their presence will be.

The term shamasa, in its common usage in Khartoum, refers only to those children who have come from the surrounding provinces and have no family in the capital. There are countless others, including girls, who wander and beg, but who have homes to return to at night. The shamasa, completely alone, are seen as a separate and more serious problem.

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``We can't afford to let these boys live aimlessly here. Many of them are still strong and their personalities undamaged. The sooner we get them off the streets and back home, the better,'' says Osman Abdin, the head of the department of social welfare in the Khartoum regional government.

The assistance programs that have emerged thus far -- all less than a year old -- focus on two goals: family reunification and vocational training. There are few doubts that the former is the best solution and that for many kids, it will work. But at a time when funding for new projects is very low, the reunification process costs about $60 a child, according to a New York-based UNICEF spokesperson.

The process begins at Sabah, a group cofounded by an American couple and a Yugoslav resident of Khartoum. There, kids are fed, examined, and screened before being referred to Amal, a Sudanese agency that actually oversees the move. The whole program is financed by the Emergency Operations Unit of UNICEF. To date, 85 boys have been returned to their families.

For some boys, though, reunification is an impossibility. Southerners, who make up perhaps 30 percent of the shamasa population, cannot return to the south because of civil war there; others have either lost contact with their families or simply don't want to return. Just passing time

Muhammad Ali Hassan, a 15-year-old boy, has spent three years in Khartoum. He comes from a village in central Sudan. He comes regularly to Sabah, a group that helps street children, for a morning meal. Why did you come to Khartoum?

The problem was that my parents wanted to leave the village and go to a better farming area, but they left me with my aunt. Most of the people in the village didn't have enough to eat, so a lot left and headed south or toward Khartoum. My aunt had her own family to look after, so I left for El Obeid, but I couldn't find anything there, so I rode on the roof of a train to Khartoum. Did you come alone?

I knew of other boys going to Khartoum, but I didn't really go with them. What did you expect to do when you arrived?

I thought I could work for two months, earn some money, then go back to my village. I did not intend to stay here. In fact, I did work for a while washing cars, and I earned 45 pounds [roughly $10], but it was stolen by other boys. Then I had nothing again, and I heard that my family was in Darfur [the westernmost province] but I didn't want to go looking for them since I had nothing to show for my time in Khartoum. Did you try to find work again?

I didn't. I had a friend who worked in a restaurant, and he would bring me food, and then I just learned to take care of myself. How did you feel when you first arrived here?

I felt good and bad. It was exciting to come, but I didn't really have a choice. There was nowhere else to go. Even my school closed down because there weren't enough teachers. I figured life would be better here. And is it?

There are many problems here. If I could go back to my family, I would. I have no other clothes, and you always have to worry about protecting yourself. Sometimes it's the older boys, sometimes it's the police. You don't feel safe at night. How do you spend your days?

I just walk around with my friends or alone. Sometimes we try to get into the cinema or go swimming in the river, but otherwise there is nothing much to do. A lot of kids sniff benzine to pass the time. What do you want to do in the future?

The main thing is to go back to school. I stopped going to school before I left my village three years ago. I am attending the school at Sabah, and if I have a chance I would like to learn auto mechanics. I think I could be a mechanic back in El Obeid, but I need some help getting started. We have no way to do anything like that on our own here.

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