Salesforce Legal Team Works with Street Children Across Europe
By: Meghna Alladi, Mehnaz Khan, and Angela Vigil
Sixty children from fourteen countries came together to share their experiences and their lives as street-connected children at the Google offices in Brussels, Belgium. It was a beautiful and bold demonstration of courage by teenagers who shared their thoughts and feelings openly and honestly. Thanks to the efforts of Dynamo International and the Consortium for Street Children, youth gathered from Brussels, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland, UK, and others in a uniting of nations unique among any other.
The conversation was shaped in a way that encouraged children to think about their lives and inspire others with insights. Their personal struggles drew our compassion and even sometimes tears as young people told of overcoming unbelievable obstacles just to keep going. Each of the delegations of young people were accompanied by street workers – young social workers who were often students themselves who translated, counselled and interpreted the words of each child in their home languages so the children could learn each other’s stories and share their thoughts with us. Supporters from the two hosting entities, Salesforce and Baker & McKenzie, listened, experienced and learned. Here is what we heard:
“A child – a poor child – doesn’t know he has the right to grow up in a different way.”
“Maybe they care in your country more?”
“The press tell bad stories about street kids. But they have to see kids in a good way. If they are in the street, it is their last chance. It is not what they wanted to do. You cannot kill yourself — so the street is the last chance to survive.”
Children came together and shared the stories of how they got to the street, how they are treated there and what their governments can do to make their lives better. They have so many concerns from living in a system that fails to serve them, and they are disappointed that it does not serve them better.
“Woven through so much of the conversation with youth and teens is the effect substance abuse has on the path to and life in the street. Substance abuse by parents making them unable to be the best parents they can. Drinking, drugs, and alcoholism by youth as they try to cope with life on their own.”
So many youth shared stories of how the system makes it difficult to make good decisions for themselves:
“I’m hungry. My goal today is not to fill out 35 pages — it is just to find food.”
“It is a lot easier to buy four chocolate bars, then four apples. If you haven’t slept, you need the chocolate to stay awake. If you are depressed, cheap alcohol is easy to get and it is the only thing you can get that will help.”
In different words and different languages, youth shared resentment for how they are viewed by society and how those stereotypes can change how children view themselves and how they behave:
“People have visions of what you are supposed to be. If people see you are a teenager and think you are a bad person, you start becoming a bad person because of the way they see you.”
“It’s a vicious cycle that pushes a person into illegality.”
The youth mapped out broken systems that lead children to the street:
“If you tell someone what is happening to you, they will probably take you away from your family. So you don’t tell.”
“Families fear social services. They do not want to contact child services because they worry they will take the child away. They are worried they will say the wrong thing and they will lose their children.”
“If families cannot care for you or you have no parents, they just put you into government homes and then the state doesn’t care if your needs are met or not.”
“Where the system places you is not always a good choice. It is not always done right. Sometimes done in an emergency. And they usually don’t consult with the children.”
The youth were not simply pointing out faults. They were suggesting how a new perspective was needed and they were eager to be part of the change that was needed:
“Social services should look more deeply at children’s stories before they decide what to do and where to put them.”
“Our care system just ends at 18 and then drops you. That shouldn’t happen”
“States don’t do their job. State transfers responsibility to the NGOs. Social services say they can’t do anything for you because you have parents. Or they say ‘we cannot help you. Go get an NGO to help you.’ But social workers at NGO don’t have enough funds and time. So they have difficulty giving you real support.”
The youth shared that they think some state solutions are inadequate:
“Nothing makes you want to stay in these Centers compared to the liberty of the streets, the lack of means, the rhythm of life, unavailable social workers, and the lack of activities for the youth. The dangerous street seems more welcoming.”
“Youth have nowhere to go. Youth Centers are being closed down. This support mechanism is being shut down. So there is nowhere for youth to go to be themselves.”
We heard youth shared that, eventually, many young people are being caught up in the criminal justice system. But law enforcement is not a strategy to care for children:
“Detention is not protection. Streets are full of violence. Taking children from the street to detention is not a solution.”
“Children are being beaten by police. They okay good cop, bad cop. When I was imprisoned as a child, no parent was allowed to come in with me. They took all my clothes (under the excuse of suicide prevention), and then they left me to wait to be questioned while they went to lunch.”
Hopeful and creative, young people reminded us that together – even on the street – they can thrive:
“The street is a way to be creative and express yourself. It is a place to for solidarity and empowerment — to feel yourself and be more comfortable.”
They wanted to share every good example they could think of to encourage the UN to share these stories and they asked one question as the days drew to a close: “What now?” They wanted to know when the UN would implement the new Comment and how it would change life for each of them and the children they represent? As humble observers to these strong and impressive youth, we shared their hope for answers to these and more questions going forward. But this Consultation was a magnificent start.
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