Twelve-year-old Samer stands at a busy junction in the centre of Ahwaz, holding a towel and glass polish. When the traffic light turns red, Samer and his friends rush to the parked cars to spray and wipe their windows, aiming to obtain a small sum from their owners, which could be less than five cents.
This child and his friends were not in this predicament three-and-a-half years ago. Back then, Samer lived with his family in one of the villages near the city on the farm they owned, which was surrounded by orchards. However, the scourge of man-made drought and water shortages forced them to escape to the city, beginning a descent into endless anguish.
When midday comes, Samer and his friends from the same impoverished neighbourhood sit down briefly in the heat that regularly rises to 50 degrees Celsius (120o F) to eat falafel snacks for 40 cents apiece. He carries a bottle of water, which will serve as their only refreshment till they get home.
Samer has had to drop out of school since his family came to the regional capital, Ahwaz. He says that he is the sole breadwinner for his family. Since they were forced to leave the family farm run by his father and generations of ancestors before him, Samer and his 15-year-old brother Ahmad are the only breadwinners, who now share responsible for earning enough to keep their mother and three other brothers after their father suffered a catastrophic deep vein thrombosis, which paralysed part of his body, which his family believe was caused by the stress of losing his land and being forced to live in a ghetto on the outskirts of Ahwaz city.
Samer and his friends are just a few of the destitute children in Ahwaz, forced to leave their homes and schools to work on the streets due to poverty, unemployment, and a lack of resources, who are daily exposed to various severe risks while still at a vulnerable age.
Among the first things that grab any visitor’s attention on entering the Ahwazi Arab neighbourhoods consigned to the capital’s peripheries is the prevalence of grinding poverty at all levels. Poverty here is not abstract, but literally means the inability to meet basic needs, whether related to securing food, health or welfare. This poverty leaves residents fighting a constant battle for survival, struggling simply to secure the day’s food. There’s no doubt that this laser focus on simply staying alive, meeting the most fundamental physiological needs at the base of Maslow’s pyramid – food, water, shelter – leaves individuals unable to address the higher issues, the moral and civilisational aspects, leaving people to simply exist in a debased, dehumanised manner in which all their energies are expended on survival.
The lack of these services leads residents of these ghettoes to live in bleak neighbourhoods without vitality or hope, in a marginalised state which has yet to experience urbanisation. One of these multiple facets of deprivation is the lack of paved roads that would facilitate communication between neighbourhoods. The main streets in these districts are all unpaved; they are rough potholed, uneven dirt paths, full of choking dust in summer and mud in winter. The heavy overcrowding and lack of functioning sewage networks mean that literal rivers of waste run through the streets, often overflowing, with the resulting stink permeating the area, making the residents’ wretched lives even more intolerable. This wastewater also leaks into the drinking water supply, spreading disease.
In addition, there’s no move by the regime to improve any of the woefully inadequate public facilities in these impoverished areas, or to provide any amenities, with residents denied schools, libraries or any space for learning or reading. There’s also a total absence of parks and green spaces which could have helped mitigate pollution and purify the choking polluted air.
No visitor’s eye could fail to see the large number of Ahwazi children working in the mechanics’ shops in these marginalised Ahwazi areas in Ahwaz city, with some as young as 10 donning filthy, oil-stained boiler suits to do jobs that would exhaust grown men.
None of these children, forced into adulthood long before their time, enjoy good health and hardly any have achieved even the rudiments of primary education. All of them belong to poor families whose harsh conditions have thrown them into the vortex of street life, forced to lose the innocence of childhood at an early age.
This is the norm not only for Ahwazis, but for all non-Persian peoples in Iran, with non-Persian populations expected and covertly actively encouraged by successive Iranian regimes to fail academically, drop out of school early, accept unskilled or menial jobs and perpetuate a generational cycle of poverty; by contrast, ethnically Persian children are encouraged to aim high, to be ambitious, to be academic high-fliers and overachievers. The leaders’ expectations and encouragement of these behaviours reinforce deliberate discrimination and marginalisation of Ahwazis, Balochis, Kurds etc. and the lack of adequate attention to these regions by the government. In 2017, the number of school dropouts in northern Ahwaz [Khuzestan] reached 100,000 students alone. Meanwhile, the number of children who dropped out of education in Hormozegan province in southern Ahwaz, where the majority of the population are Sunni Ahwazi Arabs, reached 15,000.
It’s worth noting here that the statistics issued by the Iranian government don’t reflect the realities, providing figures significantly lower than the real ones.
In 2017, the Director General of Education of the Sistan and Balochistan area in southeastern Iran revealed that 169,000 children had stopped attending school in that area. Because of the rapid, steep degradation of the already poor living and economic conditions in these areas, these figures may have risen massively between 2017 and 2023.
Educational experts in Iran have noted that poverty, unfavourable living conditions, and persecution of non-Persian peoples are the leading causes of children dropping out of school in the country. As a documentary report by Radio Zamana revealed, children drop out of school because they need to become breadwinners for their families simply in order to survive.
It might be accurate to say that education is a primary issue among the causes of poverty, marginalisation and other challenges facing Ahwazis, with the implications and influence of educational attainment or lack of qualifications having a profound long-term impact in multiple areas of life. In addition to being denied education in their mother tongue, Ahwazis, and other non-Persians also face palpable problems and disruptions in education, which reach the level of effectively denying children the hope of a decent education in Ahwazi areas. The proportion of schools per head of population in Ahwazi areas is sparse, with several districts lacking any schools for children from kindergarten to elementary through to high school level. This means that children have no choice but to attend schools in distant areas too far away for daily commuting or boarding schools, making this option available to only a small, privileged minority who are relatively financially affluent and able to pay the fees at these schools. As a result, dropping out of education is the norm rather than the exception for children in these areas, particularly for girls, who are expected to marry young and require only rudimentary vocational and social skills.
In addition, even in areas where schools are present, a large percentage lack the most basic amenities such as potable water, blackboards, classroom furniture, air conditioning or any refrigeration units for school meals. However, the worst shortcoming in the regional educational sector is the lack of competent teachers. Those teachers sent to Ahwaz by Iran’s education ministry are Persians, often student conscripts dispatched by the Iranian government during their military service to teach children. There’s no doubt that those conscripts lack the required training, skills and capabilities for teaching; they’re chosen by the education ministry simply for the fact that they’re Persian and were students when conscripted, despite studying subjects completely different to those they’re then assigned to teach; this creates further chaos in the already massively overburdened, underequipped, underfunded educational system, in which the losers are, as always, the children.
With regard to further education, it’s noticeable that there are no universities or colleges in these regions of Ahwaz, with the regime’s educational policy for t the region very deliberately avoiding establishing any institutes of further education in Ahwazi-majority areas. Instead, all the colleges and universities in the region are established to serve the children of the Persian immigrant population in areas of Ahwaz, including the capital, where the regime has resettled large numbers of ethnic Persians as part of its effort to change the demographic balance.
The losers in this system, Ahwazi children like Samer and his friends, are left to scrabble for survival. School-age squeegee kids or children peddling packs of chewing gum or water bottles to drivers and passersby are a common sight at street intersections and roadsides, risking their lives for a few cents a day. This phenomenon has become an integral feature of daily life in most Ahwazi towns and cities. For these Ahwazi children, their childhood innocence, hopes, dreams and ambitions are abandoned early on, with attending school as much a hopeless dream as flying to the moon for most. Simple childhood pleasures like playing with friends or going for an ice cream are a forlorn hope. Instead, they miss out completely on carefree childhood, forced to become breadwinners for families all enduring the same struggle to stay alive. Most of these children’s parents, many of them former farmers or fishermen forced to abandon their livelihoods and family homes due to the regime’s systematic devastation of the regional environment, would prefer to see their children attending school, enjoying their childhood, flourishing and prospering. Instead, they face the heartache of seeing their prematurely aged children struggling for survival.
Mohammad Ahwazi, a human rights activist, filmed some heartbreaking interviews with Ahwazi street children in the regional capital about the struggles they face on behalf of the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies (DIRS).
In the video footage, one of the Ahwazi Arab children, now his family’s primary breadwinner, talked about how he dropped out of school early on to make a living foraging through garbage to find items that can be resold to make ends meet. The boy, whose name was withheld, talked with a maturity beyond his years, holding the Iranian government responsible for his and his family’s suffering. “It’s the government that makes Ahwazi children like me drop out of school in search of work on the street,” the boy tells the interviewer. “In my case, my father had found no work. We’re living through harsh conditions. I was forced to leave school to gather garbage and sell it to be able to make some money to meet my family’s needs.” The child goes on to say: “Our homeland Ahwaz is rich with resources, but the Ahwazis don’t get job opportunities.”
He continues, “The Iranian regime brings Persian settlers and makes them settle in our homeland, seizing all our opportunities, leaving our people and families in poverty and endlessly searching for any work, even if it’s collecting garbage. This is for nothing more than the fact that we are Arabs. This is the reason why we are being oppressed and kept in poverty. Ahwaz is our homeland, but the privileged Persian immigrants have become owners of all the means of welfare at our own expense in our land. How can I carry on at school while I and countless other Ahwazi Arab children are struggling with poverty and our families have no jobs?”
Another boy, 14-year-old Hassan, explained that he sells tissues to passersby at the roadside in Ma’shour, a major industrial city in Ahwaz. “I lost my father in an accident a year ago, so we’ve been left with no breadwinners,” he says matter-of-factly. “My mother asked me to leave school in order to work for my three other brothers (aged seven, four and three).”
Hassan lives with his mother and siblings in a tiny dilapidated rented flat in the Koura neighbourhood in Ma’shour City. Hassan has only one wish – to return to school. He speaks longingly of simple childhood pleasures he misses like playing with friends, adding, heartbreakingly, that he was a top student and had promised his father that he’d become an architect to build a house that encompasses the entire family.
Thousands of Ahwazi children are enduring unimaginably harsh conditions like those of Samer, Hassan, and their friends. These vulnerable children, many of whom have lost one or both of their parents, whether through illness, accident or divorce caused by poverty, abuse or increasingly prevalent drug addiction, are old before their time, forced to scavenge through garbage, clean car windows, sell tissues while other children are safe at school or playing with friends. In some cases, generational poverty means the children’s parents believe that education isn’t an essential asset but rather a secondary issue, less of a priority than helping their families survive.
Thirteen-year-old Abdulrahman tells the interviewer that he recently left school to sell children’s water pistols to motorists at the traffic lights at various intersections in Abadan city. Abdulrahman explains that he feels unsafe travelling across the city, where he works from early morning until late into the night. He says simply that he has no other options, implying this wretched job, selling children’s toys to parents whose children won’t be peddling cheap playthings at traffic lights, is his only means of survival. Hassan reveals that he’s been attacked several times, but adds that he was saved by policemen and some brave passersby who intervened in a timely manner. To add insult to injury, Hassan says, his father is unemployed, and his mother’s been diagnosed with diabetes, adding that these problems mean they desperately need the income from his work, and that there’s no other choice.
It should be noted that Ahwaz contains over 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources that the Iranian regime relies on for income, which should make it by far the wealthiest region in Iran. The contrast between the vast wealth earned from the sales of these natural resources, all of which goes to the regime’s coffers, and the poverty and squalor endured by its Ahwazi people, worst of all by its children, is a shame on the regime and on all who collude with it.
Rahim Hamid: a freelance journalist and a researcher at Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.
Note: It is no secret that the Iranian regime goes to great lengths to hide the effects of its policies from the world. However, dedicated Ahwazi activists were able to interview these children and provide the author with first-hand insight from the children themselves into their heartrending plight.