Mehedi Hasan – a 10-year old boy from Barishal – had idle hours to fill at his home amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but his days were fraught with constant familial bickering.
His distraught parents, both of whom cared for children from previous marriages, struggled to meet even the basic needs of Mehedi and his brothers. In these trying times, work was less, and so was income.
Mehedi often sneaked into getting hold of his mother's mobile phone to play games, the only thing he found entertaining as his school had been shut for months due to concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus.
On September 26, his mother Rozina caught him playing games on her phone and vented her anger by beating him. The boy left home the very next day, and boarded a launch for Sadarghat in the capital, to find himself among many other homeless children.
Mehedi, who left home with nothing but his sunglasses, blue shirt, and a pair of torn jeans, was loitering around at the Kamalapur Railway Station.
Having gone without food since he left home, he was glancing at a group of street children with ragged clothes and unkempt hair, sitting in a circle to eat lunch provided by Leedo (Local Education and Economic Development Organisation), a non-government organisation committed to the welfare of disadvantaged children.
That was when a social worker approached him and came to know his story.
Mehedi's tale was not very different from "those children, you see, gulping down rice with dal and chicken," said Nazirul Islam Opu, who has been working with Leedo for two years.
Opu has met many such children over the last four months, who abandoned their families because they felt abandoned first in the midst of balancing life and livelihoods, loss of income, and distressing poverty.
The streets of Dhaka had been home to disadvantaged children even before the pandemic. They worked by the day, collecting recyclables, filling up empty water bottles to sell or helping out in roadside restaurants. They slept through the nights.
Pandemic sees more homeless children
During the two-month lockdown beginning at the end of March, the streets became all theirs, devoid of vehicles with shutters of shops and offices down. But the children had nothing to fall back on for survival.
As the wheels of the economy stopped, poverty rose, and more and more children came down to the streets, searching for emancipation from a chaotic, unloving environment.
Around this time when such children needed support the most, NGOs that work for child rights scaled down their activities, fearing infection, said Forhad Hossain, executive director of Leedo.
A shelter home of INCIDIN Bangladesh had no sign of activity on the afternoon of September 28, with empty chairs, cots and an office bearer who could not provide any information.
Many other such facilities did not welcome children amid the ongoing health and economic crisis. A government-run rehabilitation centre at Kamalapur under the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs did not allow in new children during the lockdown either.
"We could not receive new children in order to keep residents safe from the virus," said residential social worker Tanjum Nahar. The centre was one among two opened in 2017 under a pilot project. The main objectives were to rescue street children, reintegrate them into their families, if found, and rehabilitate them.
Another long-unattained goal was to conduct a survey to arrive at estimates related to street children in Dhaka. An effort made in the second week of March was stalled and unfinished after the announcement of the lockdown, said Shah Alam, consultant of the project.
However, a team of 10-12 people within 10 days' time of the survey made a count of more than 5,000 children, he added.
The women and children affairs ministry (MoWCA) and the social welfare ministry (MoSW) had a plan to conduct such a survey in Dhaka in 2016. In an emailed response, Unicef said it is planning to commission a survey on children living on the streets jointly with the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, MoSW, MoWCA and Dhaka's city corporations.
"Whatever the number of street children was before the pandemic, it must have gone up as financial hardships struck poor families. In some instances, an entire family with children took shelter on the streets," said Forhad. Leedo rescued at least 100 children from the streets in the last four months.
Since Leedo Peace Home in the capital's Basila area has capacity constraints, it requested several other shelter homes, including those established by the government, to accommodate children whose parents could not be tracked down.
Many children, such as Mehedi, do not want to go home. And as days on the streets turn to months and years, they veer off the path of conscience. They become resistant to any mechanism to discipline them, which is why social workers of Leedo pick up children between four and twelve years old for rehabilitation.
Fifteen-year-old Arif, who has spent a significant part of his childhood at the Kamalapur Station, said he had left home at the age of five or six.
He visited his family in Nabinagar area of Brahmanbaria a few times since then and every time he sneaked out of home because he has become habituated to life on the road.
The lure of drugs, sexual exploitation
During the lockdown, Arif said, he had developed an addiction to sniffing "a glue-like substance" that is popularly known as "dandy" among street children.
"Dandy" is the vapour of chemical solutions used in repairing and joining objects made of leather and rubber. Street children are often seen inhaling the vapour to become intoxicated.
"There was nothing to do, and I felt like sniffing dandy," Arif said.
At the Peace Home, 10-year-old Rumi on Tuesday explained how, two years ago, she saw children at the Dhaka international airport take "dandy" and slept all day long. She had also heard stories about children being killed and getting injured in road accidents while they were intoxicated.
Though she said she had never abused the substance, Sohel Rana, whom Rumi reveres as her father at the Peace Home, said she seemed to have taken drugs when he rescued her.
Rumi told a heart-wrenching story of her own without flinching a bit.
Her father, a truck driver, was killed in a road accident in Chittagong. Rumi's mother, a cancer patient, died in a fire as she tried to get comfort from pain by taking heat therapy.
Orphaned at a young age, Rumi lived with her elder brother, an electrician, and sister-in-law who, Rumi said, did not like her. And then one day, Rumi's brother abandoned her at the Chittagong railway station.
Unlike Rumi, many girl children face sexual abuse and exploitation, and many end up in prostitution rackets, said Sohel Rana, who is now working as manager of the Peace Home.
Lucky, a special child and one of the residents of the Peace Home, was found at the Sadarghat launch terminal three years ago when she was four months into her pregnancy. Now aged 15, she still talks very little, as Sohel said, and her speech has not developed fully.
With a deteriorating health condition, Lucky had to go through an abortion at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
Leedo takes children to the Peace Home after a transition period at any of its temporary shelters, when it feels that the children are ready to be assimilated into the Leedo family.
A child goes through psycho-social counseling to help him or her understand the essence of familial bonding. If the child can tell his or her parents' address, he or she is reunited with them and the parents are advised on parenting.
In these pandemic times, the non-government organisation operating on individual donations has also been giving cash support to families to meet the basic needs of the children.
But its executive director Forhad Hossain said it needed concerted efforts by all stakeholders to ensure that no children could go astray.
Meanwhile, Unicef, along with its partners, provided hygiene materials such as soap and hand sanitiser, food, accommodation, primary health care, and continued other basic services such as psychosocial support, non-formal education and life skills sessions.
That, however, seems not enough to reach children like Mehedi, from Barishal. On September 26, Mehedi left home for the second time in a matter of two weeks. This time he ended up in the care of Leedo.
Now, he will be cared for at the transitional shelter named Setubondhon at Kamalapur for days, before he is expected to open up his thoughts and can be persuaded into going back to his mother.
There is time before he takes refuge in street life.