TEHRAN — TEHRAN -- Atefeh is one of the younger members of Iran's merchant class. Her sales territory is the notorious traffic jams of north Tehran. She moves in on potential clients when the light turns red, pressing her face to car windows, cocking her head to one side and putting on a plaintive face.
At 12, she isn't as good at plaintive as some of her younger competitors, two boys who are hawking Quranic inscriptions and balloons just up the street. Sometimes her face looks more furious than sad. But she still can clear 55 cents a day selling her packages of pink-and-red strawberry chewing gum to bored and surly drivers.
A decade ago, street children were rare in Iran, with its traditions of charity for the poor, government aid programs and strong family connections. No more.
Nongovernmental organizations estimate that the number of street children in Iran, officially listed at 60,000, has grown in recent years to 200,000 or more. Many are the offspring of Afghan refugees. Others come from Iranian families who have slipped, through unemployment, drug addiction or illness, into the populous ranks of the urban poor.
Social activists say high unemployment, ballooning inflation and misdirected government subsidies have left many families unable to support themselves without turning to their children to help with earnings. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, elected two years ago on a pledge to deliver Iran's oil wealth back to the nation's dining tables, has done little to improve the lot of Tehran's poorest families.
"In the early days of the revolution, I remember the slogan was 'Welfare, food and health for everyone,'" said Bahram Rahimi, director of training at the Children's House of Shoosh, a school in south Tehran that provides part-time instruction to street children too busy working or too poor to attend normal schools. "Now everyone understands that privatization is the name of the game."
Although the government has made inroads in reducing the poverty rate, rapidly rising prices have reversed many gains, and sociologists estimate that 16 million Iranians live in poverty.
The Children's House stands in the middle of a commercial block in one of the most crowded districts of Tehran. Inside, its corridors are lined with cheerful, hand-painted murals, and its classroom chairs are arranged in haphazard clusters, testimony to a young clientele unaccustomed to sitting still in neat rows.
About 55 percent of the city's street children are offspring of the estimated 1.5 million refugees who have flooded into Iran from Afghanistan over the past 20 years, school officials say, and many of the rest are children of single parents, mixed-nationality families or Gypsies. Many come from the growing number of families affected by drug addiction as heroin shipments across the Afghan border have multiplied since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Rahmatollah Sedigh Sarvestani, a sociology professor at the University of Tehran, said the number of drug addicts in Iran, officially listed at 1 million, is more likely closer to 3 million, with the number of users possibly as high as 6 million.
"We don't have enough job opportunities for people. We are facing, even after the revolution, class differentiation, inequality in income, wealth and power. So there are good reasons to have so many addicts, and every other social deviancy," Sarvestani said. "This is everywhere. Not just here and there. Everywhere."
Atefeh, who was afraid to give her last name, is a dark, slight girl who looks much younger than 12. She moved with her family to Tehran from the Caspian Sea region several years ago. She began selling chewing gum on the street two years ago, when her father became ill and had to be hospitalized. There was little choice: Her mother had been killed in a car accident several years earlier; her 10-year-old brother lost his legs not long ago when he chased a soccer ball into the street and was struck by a car.
Atefeh works all morning and early afternoon hawking gum, then washes dishes and cooks at a neighbor's house later in the day. She gives her earnings to her father.
"My father told me, 'After I'm well, I will pay you back,'" she said. "He's better now, but he's not working yet. He says he's going to start working in two or three days."
The Children's House is operated by the Iranian Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child, a project of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.
"The number of street children in Iran is increasing," Ebadi said. "The school is part of my plan to supervise and parent these kinds of street children. We train them and we educate them, we provide them with medical treatment, and we have a social worker who works with them."
The school offers the basics of reading and writing, but first comes instruction in what administrators call the "survival skills" that might enable a 10-year-old to negotiate the hierarchy of the Tehran marketplace. "We teach them survival of the fittest, how to survive in the streets," said Javid Sobhani, a children's rights activist who works at the school."
Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.