by Natasha Raheel
KARACHI: 18-year-old Naseer Ahmed knows what glory feels like, having stood proud on the podium of the Street Child World Games in Brazil last year and having had his picture of that moment liked by the world’s fastest man Usain Bolt.
But he also knows how hard it is to make ends meet earning Rs300 with a shift that runs from 7am to 3pm. He also knows, as the sole bread winner of his family, how sometimes working from 7am till midnight feels just to earn Rs200 more. And he also knows how it feels to be exploited by non-government organisations (NGOs) who used his talent to their advantage.
“It all feels like a dream that, somewhere along the line, turned into a nightmare,” Naseer tells The Express Tribune. “Now the priority is to sit at this pan shop and make sure I don’t get caught by the police when they raid. What do I tell people; that I went to Brazil and won a medal there, I went to Norway and China to play football there but have no prospect of a future other than selling pan here for the rest of my life?”
Naseer is another of the children to come forward to discuss the way NGO Azad Foundation took advantage of the children. “In my heart, in my mind, I was playing for Pakistan,” he said. “Azad Foundation told us that it is for the country, but little did I know that they were just using us for their own benefit. They promised us a secure future and a stable salary if we performed well. We did, but here I am, two years later, a labourer again.”
Previously, members of the famous 2014 Street Child Football World Cup team — Raziq Mushtaq, Merh Ali Mustafa, Aurangzeb Baloch and Sameer Ahmed — and their coach Rashid Baloch, had revealed how the NGO made empty promises and exploited them.
More and more such children are now coming forward to speak against an organisation that they claim only uses them for their own monetary gains.
Naseer says he found out about Azad Foundation in 2015 and participated at the 2016 Brazil Street Child Games, despite not being a street child in the first place.
“Azad Foundation officials Itfan Maqbool and Naveed Hasan Khan used to come to our play grounds where there were 300 to 400 children and would pick three or four kids,” he said. “They told us that they will give us jobs, they will pay us to do something we loved doing [play football]. I don’t have a father so I didn’t have anyone to consult this offer with. I just went with them.”
The promised money never made it to their pockets though. “They never gave me a single penny and I left Azad Foundation six months later since I felt I was begging for what was my own money.”
Naseer went to Norway, France, China and the US with Azad Foundation, but said he and the other kids were always on the end of a barrage of abuses hurled at them by officials from the organisation.
Naseer was blessed with natural pace and was therefore asked to be a part of the athletics team, where he was trained by official Haris Jadoon, who has no experience in sports training. Former athlete Naseem Hameed then collaborated with the NGO later on but only met the boys once due to the last-minute nature of her appointment.
“It was all very rushed,” said Naseer. “We would stay at Azad Foundation offices and used to run at random grounds. I want to play football, I know I have a talent for athletics but there are no coaches or facilities to pursue a career in athletics.”
Athletics is a demanding sport but Naseer said he was not even provided enough food after a long day of training.
“They would keep giving us chana (chickpeas) but nothing substantial so it came as no surprise that the street children we saw in Brazil — who had actually lived on the streets — were in better shape than we were.”
There are others, like 17-year-olds Muhammad Munawwar and Uzair Qadir, who suffered fates worse than Naseer; both getting injured during the 2015 Norway Cup.
Munawwar, a former defender, now works as a labourer in a bid to earn around Rs20,000 per month as he aims to fix his now problematic knee.
“I live in Malir and my father is a worker at a shoe-lace factory where he earns Rs10,000,” he said. “I loved playing football and that is why I went with Azad Foundation. I went to play with them in Norway, China, France and US, but when I got injured they never paid me any money to help me with my treatment. A well-wisher in Norway, where I got injured, gave me Rs10,000 for treatment but Azad Foundation wouldn’t give me my passport back if I didn’t give them that amount.”
Harsh reality has set in for these children. “Our knees are gone, aren’t they?” asks Munawwar. “We believed we were playing for Pakistan, we really did. They made us lie too about being street children, but really what options did we have? The doctors say the veins in Uzair’s knee are blocked now so his condition is even worse than mine.”
Munawwar, Naseer, Mehr and other players all verified they never had a team doctor with them, with the situation being so bad that they wouldn’t even have a pain-relief spray at their disposal.
Such harrowing tales of broken lies, misuse and exploitation from Azad Foundation are now becoming more and more common place. The children, meanwhile, continue to wish they had never realised their dreams of one day playing for Pakistan.