Reuniting Pakistan's lost children with their families

Edhi officials search for house of lost boy Shan, sitting centre, in Islamabad Finding a boy's family can be like looking for a needle in a haystack

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The BBC's M Ilyas Khan reports on the work of a Pakistani organisation which helps to reunite missing children with their relatives - and helps a lost boy find his own family.

Zeeshan, 15, wavers between hope and despair as we steer through the crowded streets of Rawalpindi on a humid July afternoon, searching for his lost relatives.

Hours earlier, he was telling me he used to live with his grandparents because his mother went away and married someone else, and he did not remember who his father was.

He says he used to help at a car workshop where his brother - or was it his uncle? - used to work.

He remembers the name of the workshop owner, though: Master Nadeem.

That was seven years ago.

He is now being cajoled by Amanullah Khan, an official of one of Pakistan's largest charities, the Edhi Foundation, to try and recall any distinctive feature of the place where he lived.

We finally find Master Nadeem, who leads us to his grandparents' house - a narrow, decrepit structure along a dusty street in an impoverished part of the city.

An unsuspecting old woman - Zeeshan's grandmother - pauses in the doorway for a moment, looks hard at his face, then hugs him and breaks into tears.

"Yes, this is him, my lost child," she utters in Punjabi, holding him tight.

Once certain he has come to the right place, Amanullah Khan grabs a photocopy of the identification documents of Ali's uncle, gets him to sign a receipt for the child, and hurries out quickly, saying: "Have a happy Eid".

This is the 30th lost child he has reunited with his family during the last eight days. He has 20 more to take home before he can call it a day.

Kidnapped

Human rights organisations say at least 3,000 children go missing in Pakistan each year. Some are kidnapped, others run away. They are practically all boys - family customs mean girls' movements are more restricted and they go missing much less often.

Edhi Foundation vans The Edhi Foundation runs clinics for the poor, mental habitats, old homes and child welfare services

The runaway children often say they ran away to escape physical punishment at school or at home. But the two things nearly all of them have in common are abject poverty and broken homes.

Many of them end up as street children, but some land into the hands of welfare organisations.

The Edhi Foundation is one such organisation, with perhaps the largest and most visible network of emergency services across the country. In addition, it runs clinics for the poor, old people's homes and child welfare services.

Each year, it advertises the names and pictures of the children in its homes, officials say, but many children still remain unclaimed.

To reunite these unclaimed children with their families, the founder of the organisation, 83-year-old Abdus Sattar Edhi, personally escorted a busload of them across the country in 2009, searching for their addresses.

But many children had to be carted back either because they deliberately provided wrong information, or could not remember the correct names of their parents or the places.

Start Quote

We find some families quickly, but others have either moved, or the area has been built upon and the child cannot recognise it any more”

End Quote Amanullah Khan Edhi Foundation

"This time, we have interviewed them in detail to select those who want to go home and have some idea of their addresses," says Mr Khan.

The Edhi bus rolled out of Karachi on 12 July, with 50 children on board. The aim was to reunite them with their families before the Eid festival, due in the second week of August.

In eight days, they have only reached Islamabad, a driving distance of 26 hours.

Mr Khan explains the delay: "We find some families quickly, but others have either moved, or the area has been built upon and the child cannot recognise it any more. Sometimes the searching takes hours."

But at other times it just takes a rare flash of memory to solve the problem.

Reunited

Navid, an exuberant 12-year-old, is autistic - and a source of entertainment for his mates on the bus.

Navid talking to his father Navid hears his father's voice for the first time this year

He remembers his father's name, and also that he comes from a Persian-speaking family of Afghan refugees living in Peshawar.

But then he gives me a piece of information he has not shared with Edhi officials: "I remember my father's [phone] number," he tells me in Pashto.

I call the number. A sleepy, boyish voice answers. I ask if it is Khan, Navid's father. The boy on the other side says lazily: "I'm not him. He's sleeping."

I ask him if he knows Navid, and the boy's voice is suddenly electrified. "Where is he, hold the line, I'm waking up Khan right away..."

Soon afterwards, Navid presses my phone to his ear, and in his semi-articulate mumbles makes fun of his father for having missed him.

But there is no such luck for 10-year-old Shan.

After three hours of searching in the eastern hills of Islamabad, he does finally lead us to the spot where his family used to live.

But the place is bare ground now. His parents, who belong to a Punjabi nomadic tribe and live in temporary, thatched shelters, have moved to other grounds.

A roadside fruit vendor tells us the nomads went away more than a year ago.

Tired of searching, a disappointed Shan asks Mr Khan to "hand me over to the fruit seller. I will find my parents myself".

Instead, Mr Khan hands him over to the Edhi Home in Islamabad, with instructions to officials here to carry on the search for the nomads higher up in the hills.

By the end of the day, Shan is not only without a family, he is also being left behind by his friends as they board the bus for their onward journey, hoping to find their homes.

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