Free school offers hope for Jakarta street children

JAKARTA (Reuters) - For Qodir, who ekes out a living collecting garbage in the Indonesian capital, an elementary school diploma was just a dream, until he enrolled at a free school for street children three years ago.

A group of activists has set up a makeshift school in one of Jakarta’s crowded slums, providing children and their parents with free lessons and practical training such as sewing and motorbike repairs.

“I am very happy that we have this school here. I hope the school will be here forever,” said 13-year-old Qodir, who goes by one name like many Indonesians.

Last year, the school, run by the Nanda Dian Nusantara foundation, enrolled him for elementary school national exams to obtain a diploma. He said he planned to continue his study at an Islamic school in June this year.

Children working as beggars, food hawkers and garbage collectors are a common sight on the streets of Jakarta, many earning as little as $1 a day.

The children have often been sent out onto the streets by impoverished parents who can’t support their families, and as a result, are deprived of an education.

At the makeshift school equipped with wooden tables, dozens of child workers sit on the floor, receiving lessons for two hours in the morning and another two hours in the afternoon.

It is often tough to get the children to attend classes since many have to work to help their parents, who are mostly garbage collectors.

The children work in car workshops, collect garbage, shine shoes, sell newspapers or take care of younger siblings. Finding two meals a day is a full-time occupation.

“I want to study and work at the same time,” said Khayrul, 12, who earns between 10,000-15,000 rupiah per day ($1.07-$1.60) as a garbage collector and joined the school two months ago.

He dropped out of school last year when his mother died and he left his home town in Central Java to live in Jakarta with his uncle.

Elvrina Diyanti, a volunteer teacher, said the school tries to adjust classes to the children’s working hours.

“We have discussed it with students and parents so that we can have more students in the class. We try to make it very flexible,” she said.

She said many of the children do not attend classes regularly and teachers have to be a little bit more patient.

The foundation also teaches illiterate parents to read and provides vocational training such as sewing, cooking and other skills so that they can earn extra income, said Desy Handayani, one of the foundation’s activists.

Roostien Ilyas, 58, started the foundation in 1990. There are now hundreds of free schools for children and women across the country.

“We don’t teach them how to live their lives because they know,” said Ilyas, who trained as an English teacher.

Ilyas said her experience in handling traumatized children in several disaster and conflict-hit areas across Indonesia has opened her eyes to the lack of government support for children.

In East Java, where a mud volcano forced about 15,000 people to abandon their homes, Ilyas said it is proving hard to find a safe location and funding for the displaced children.

Some scientists say the flow of hot mud in Sidoarjo regency, near the city of Surabaya, was caused by a gas drilling operation by PT Lapindo Brantas. Lapindo is partly owned by the family of Indonesia’s chief social welfare minister, Aburizal Bakrie.

Ilyas said she worried about conditions for the children in this area because their parents have been made homeless and jobless by the disaster.

“I am very disappointed with the government. They never think seriously about children’s problems in this country,” she said.

Writing by Ahmad Pathoni; Editing by Sophie Hardach