I first set eyes upon the arched boulevard, “Welcome Lyari Town” – Karachi’s clandestine hotbed for Kalashnikovs, drugs and gangs – for a doc-film.
We’re traversing narrow, colorful roadways and garbage heaps hurled on sidewalks, admiring choppy brushstroke graffiti adorning the walls, dodging ragged children threading their way through rush hour traffic. I’ve lived in this city but never seen anything similar - such is Karachi’s class divide.
My mind wanders to the evening my husband was abducted and brought to this desperate slum. Lyari appears a combustible, dangerous mess.
The car pulls up at an open-air ground in a corner of the neighborhood. Inside, streams of young boys and girls are lining up, bright kits and soccer balls littering the field, following warm-up instructions from coaches. A boy wearing two different shoes practices dribbling. He fires the ball through the goal post and races off, not stopping until his team buries him under a group hug.
“I was a teaboy in a street gang,” he later tells me. “Until football became my escape.”
At another end of the stadium, two boys sit with their eyes glued to the game. I jokingly ask them if they are cricket fans instead. “We love football, but we don’t have kits,” they open up.
“Rules are rules,” the coach explains. “We work on next-to-nil resources.”
I watch the teeming stadium, Lyari remade before my eyes, as life-affirming as it is exploding. Matches are in full swing and football offers a way out of this war zone.
Sexual Violence, Substance Abuse and Street Life
I arrive at Empress Market, cloistered within Karachi’s thumping city life, watching people read newspapers at butcher stalls. Owais and Salman, two young boys from these streets, walk through a bare field, strewn with polythene scraps, empty plastic bottles and leftovers. Owais points to the sidewalk where they spent their growing up years.
“The first night I came to the streets, I felt very cold,” he recalls. “Eventually, I ripped some banners off the street, placed my shoes underneath my head, and went to sleep.”
Today, approximately 1.5 million children inhabit Pakistan’s streets, facing the obvious challenges of hunger and homelessness, but harsher threats of mafias, drugs and sexual violence, as Owais and Salman witnessed. Exiting these networks can be deadly.
I ask Owais why he decided to run away from home, despite the menacing prospect of living on the streets of Karachi - the concrete megacity on the Arabian Sea, home to a sprawling web of violent gangs, drug addicts, and predators.
“I used to get beaten at home. One day, my mother sent me to buy nihari (beef curry) for dinner. I was swinging the packet when it accidentally dropped and tore open. I knew I’d be beaten terribly when I told my family what had happened. That was the starting gun. I made up my mind to never return home.”
For months, Owais’s mother searched for him. “I cleaned people’s homes for a living but, on my day off, I’d go look for him,” she tells us, crouched in a room with a kitchen, a single bed and Owais’s football accolades. “I was sure I’d find him someday, somewhere. But for the longest time, I didn’t,” she sobs into her dupatta, recalling the days when she didn’t know whether her son was alive.
Landing Lights at Rio
Owais and Salman’s lives have been a metamorphosis; from no birth-certificates, never having entered an airport, to being recruited off the footpath and trained as footballers. They were selected as part of the squad that represented Pakistan at the Street Child World Cup in Rio, Owais captaining the team alongside other street children.
The journey to Rio was hardly straightforward. “Everyone’s paperwork arrived but I didn’t even have a birth certificate, let alone a passport. I felt like crying and my friends kept asking me if I was sad because I couldn’t go to Brazil. I wasn’t sad because I couldn’t go but because I didn’t have a family ‘name,’ an identity, that offered legitimacy.” Luckily, Owais’s paperwork came just in time to board the flight with the rest of his teammates.
The World Cup experience was as surreal as it was testing. As the plane landed in Rio, one of their teammates said, “pinch me,” struggling to believe this was real. Whilst in Rio, the boys met footballing stars they had only watched on television, including Arsenal’s invincible, Gilberto Silva.
The Street Child Football World Cup brought together 230 street children from 19 countries, battling for the cup and much more: awareness, advocacy, fund-raising, and reclaiming basic child rights. It has since become a regular global event.
Abdul Raziq, Pakistan’s top scorer in the tournament who previously ran a fruit stall, was recruited from outside a football ground. In Rio, he championed a crushing defeat to India, after which the boys won matches against Kenya, Mauritius and drew with USA, eventually winning bronze for Pakistan. Raziq’s dream is to play like Lionel Messi.
Upon returning from Rio, the scene at the Karachi airport was biblical; hordes of fans, during the early hours of the morning, waiting to garland the team that had brought victory home. Eventually, the boys reunited with their families.
Football Matches to Mass Movement
In Pakistan, however, the issue of street children is graver; privileged classes view them as excess accrual - loitering aimlessly, begging, sleeping at shrines and sidewalks. Aware of this crisis, for Owais and Salman, the mission is bigger than fame: first, for people to stop perceiving street children as “The Uninvited” and second, to rupture the myth that if they are born into abject poverty, the future must be stitched to that exact past.
“Winning is one thing but our real battle began after Rio. We led a nation-wide movement - I Am Somebody - going door to door, educating street children that they, just like everyone else, are ‘Somebody’. Restoring self-worth and dignity is more critical than any trophy.”
The boys are committed to longer-term change, providing football and life-skills training to other street children. Only then can the movement sustain. They regularly compete with teams in the neighborhood to brush up their own game.
One afternoon, as Owais puts on his soccer shoes for a match, he remembers something he has been putting off – it is a stark reminder of his journey from the streets.
“This beast has been there for days,” he points at a dead donkey, lying in the ground behind the shelter where he lives. “We better dispose him before the stench spreads.” The boys drag the animal across the yard, before heading off to do what they love most.
Wedged between their dreams and realities, they resemble fighters, hurling out of street ghettos and using the universal language of football to catapult into national stardom.
“If I was reborn, I’d definitely become a footballer again,” Owais says, confirming his compulsion for the game and its power to spark social change.
This football movement has taken the streets of Karachi by storm, screaming in denial to the status quo; demonstrating that dreaming big is not the territory of the privileged, that starting points can be outdone and that street children are not a mere statistic.