Seven children, between ages 6-14 years, used to eat, sleep and breathe in the streets of Sylhet city, with no one to look out for them. For years, they begged, pick-pocketed and even mugged, and at one point of their problematic lives, got addicted to sniffing glue, commonly known as "dandy".
But their bad days seem to have ended. A kind-hearted initiative of Electronic Media Journalist Association (EMJA) and a group of volunteers made a life-changing impact on these kids, as they got education, counselling and rehabilitation at a shelter.
"It started out in the very first days of the pandemic. As thousands became jobless, we decided to arrange a food programme for the city's floating population on May 9," said Ashraful Kabir, former president and coordinator of EMJA's initiatives.
He said, "For 100 days, we fed more than a hundred people, including 30 kids. After stopping the food support, we decided to rehabilitate the kids through counselling. On August 19, we took 13 of them to our temporary shelter at Mohammad Ali Gymnasium."
"It wasn't easy. Families of three kids took them away, and another three ran away. But the remaining seven showed us hope. For 21 days, we gave them shelter, food, recreation and most importantly, professional counselling," Ashraful said.
On September 10, the kids were handed over to the custody of Sheikh Russel Children Training and Rehabilitation Centre in Sylhet, at a programme where government officials concerned were present.
Biman Talukder, a volunteer of the initiative, said, "All we needed was support from people, and we received it. These kids live a free life; rehabilitating them in a closed compound is hard. They need more time and open space, and a lot of care for recovery. It'll take a long time to change their mindset."
EMJA President Mahbubur Rahman Ripon said, "When we started our food initiative, we realised that these kids live a risky life. We came to know that the Department of Social Services tried to rehabilitate them before, but failed due to lack of proper counselling and guidance."
"That's what we focused on and finally handed them over to the centre, with a hope that this time they might stay there," he said.
"These kids aren't ordinary, so they can't be easily rehabilitated. But they need proper care and physiological support, for which appropriate counselling is key. We'll be following their status at the centre, as long as they're okay with institutionalisation," Mahbubur said.
EMJA will continue such initiatives, and other organisations should come forward to give these kids a better life, he added.
Nibash Ranjan Das, deputy director of Department of Social Services, said, "The initiative is simply splendid. We tried before, but could not succeed due to lack of proper counselling. EMJA realised this and has done a wonderful job. We are hopeful that these kids might be rehabilitated this time."
"We have a post of psychologist at the centre, but it is still vacant. There was one life-skills trainer who used to take care of counselling, but he was transferred. Now, we seriously need facilitation of proper counselling for such kids," he said.
"Once they are institutionalised, we will transfer them to the 'Sishu Paribar' for boys, where they can live and study until they are ready to enter society with dignity," he added.