First Published: 2003-02-14

Why young runaways head to Tehran?

Young runaways find dark side when they find themselves faced with drugs, prostitution to survive in Tehran.


Middle East Online

By Fereshteh Modarresi - TEHRAN

Just an hour in the streets is enough for them to fall prey

When 13-year-old Elaheh ran away from her mentally ill mother and drug addict father, she headed straight for the bright lights of the Iranian capital, Tehran.

But she quickly found the darker side of the city, and several months later was picked up by police and sent to a shelter for runaway girls.

"One can quickly spot them, with their frightened, wondering, agitated and confused looks," said Masumeh Sheikhan, a child psychologist working at the Yaran-e-Mehr ("Friends of Mercy") centre.

"Just an hour in the streets is enough for them to fall prey," she said, as Elaheh was having her lice-infested hair shaved off in another room.

"The first trap is abusive corruption gangs: prostitution, smuggling, robbery and kidnapping."

Runaways are not unique to Iran, and Elaheh's case is a common story the world over. But the growing number of children abandoning their homes is becoming a major headache, as the country is saddled with a massive young generation resulting from a call for "soldiers of Islam" and a ban on family planning after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Official figures put the number of runaways at 30,000, with an increase of 300 percent between 1997 and 2000. Various newspapers have said the number is much higher.

Many come from broken homes like Elaheh, who says she fled the conservative religious centre of Qom, in central Iran, after her mother divorced her father and she was placed in foster care.

The girl, who looks much older than 13, refused to give full details on what forced her to flee, and only alludes to the traumas that welcomed her to Tehran, a sprawling, smog-choked metropolis of some 10 million people.

"As I stepped out in the city's street, there were people everywhere following me, as if they knew I was a runaway," she says. "So I sat beside a white-haired old man in a park to get rid of the boys who were following me, but he was no better than the others".

"If you have no place to sleep, nothing to eat then you start not to think about yourself," said Elaheh.

Despite the perils of abuse, drugs and prostitution, workers at the shelter say the girls keep turning up.

"They are mostly from broken homes, many of them also suffer mental problems such as schizophrenia, paranoia," lamented Sheikhan.

But she also referred to other cases, of young girls fleeing traditional homes in the provinces in search of more interesting horizons.

"Four girls, aged eight to eleven, from a village near the Iraqi border turned up in their colorful traditional dresses. They wanted to see Tehran, which they had only heard about on television," she said. "There are not much entertainment and a lot of restrictions in the provinces.

"Our social workers quickly recognized them and returned them back home from the bus terminal."

She said other reasons for youth frustrations are mounting divorce figures, drug addiction, poverty, abusive parents, forced marriages, or families who impose overly strict religious rules.

"Some of them just want to experience a sexual relationship, many come here to find a job to improve the financial situation but they encounter sexual demands instead," she added, referring to the massive growth of the sex trade in the capital.

Few are lucky enough to land in the shelter, the only one of its kind in the capital, and struggling to survive because officials want to substitute state funding for private involvement.

"Our support is limited and can only be there for a certain period of time," said Zohreh Zareh, who heads the central Tehran home which currently houses just 26 runaways and teaches them a range of crafts including carpet weaving and painting.

The city's social workers comb the capital in search of runaways, generally finding them in bus terminals, parks or near the city's railway station in a grotty area surrounded by drug dealers and addicts.

"They need a family, and our society must accept that they are victims.

"We try to find their families and provide them counselling, and try to convince the families to accept their daughters back home," she said.

"Many accept them, but some families who are very religious cannot accept the reality that their daughters have spent a night in the streets.

"The roots of the problem still remain, and what we do is like an aspirin, a temporary solution."

But anyone who had already been lured into prostitution has to be turned over to the police. And that appeared to be the case for 13-year-old Elaheh.

"We cannot keep such girls here, she is a street girl, our children here are morally healthy," one of the shelter's staff was arguing as the girl was locked into a room for de-lousing.

"She can never be trained. She will be a bad influence."


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