Bus ride across Pakistan brings lost boys home

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (AP) — The boy remembered a garage where he used to help his uncle repair motorbikes. Walking home one night, he got lost and was picked up by the police. Now, more than six years later, he was headed home again.

When 15-year-old Zeeshan Ali showed up on the mechanic’s doorstep, the garage owner recognized him and took him to a nearby street where the boy’s family still lives. There, as rickshaws and motorcycles noisily passed by and bystanders stopped to stare, Zeeshan was reunited with his grandmother, Taj Bibi, who took him into her arms and sobbed.

The emotional reunion was the work of Pakistan’s Edhi Foundation, possibly the country’s most well-known philanthropic organization, based in the southern port city of Karachi.

Officials from Edhi have been on a cross-country bus tour to find the families of 50 of the boys living at one of their facilities in Karachi that takes care of lost, abandoned and runaway children.

Zeeshan’s grandmother said she never lost hope, despite the tears.

“We wept for him. We looked for him everywhere. We searched for him everywhere. Then, I started consoling my son and I told him that my grandson will come back one day,” she said, with one arm wrapped around Zeeshan.

The overwhelmed boy could do little more than cry and say he was happy to be home.

The cross-country bus was the brainchild of Abdul Sattar Edhi, Pakistan’s most famous philanthropist who helps orphans, drug addicts, the elderly, abandoned newborns, and lost or runaway children. The wizened humanitarian and his wife run several facilities in Karachi and other cities across the country.

The bus ride is meant to bring boys who had been sheltered by the Edhi Foundation to a place where they once lived. The hope is that once there, they recognize the surroundings — or someone recognizes them.

It was the second time the organization has attempted a cross-country reunification. During the first bus tour, in 2008, 48 of the 55 boys on board were handed back to their parents during a 10-day trip, said Anwar Kazmi, an official at Edhi’s Karachi office.

The bus this time left Karachi with 50 children. By Monday, 41 of them had been reunited with their families, and they were on their last stop — the southeastern city of Quetta — before returning to Karachi.

The foundation has little to go on except the boys’ memories.

Zeeshan remembered a garage where his uncle worked in Rawalpindi. Once the bus got to the city, they drove around and he was able to recognize what seemed like the right garage. The owner of the garage wasn’t there but one of the workers took Zeeshan to the owner’s house nearby. From there, the owner called Zeeshan’s uncle and then guided him to his family’s home.

Zeeshan said he had tried to tell the police when he was first picked up that he lived in Rawalpindi but he said they didn’t listen and instead sent him to an Edhi office in Lahore.

By then, he said he was so angry and afraid that he didn’t say anything and was eventually sent to an Edhi home in Karachi. He believes he was about eight or nine when he was picked up but no one seems to know for sure.

The children come to the Edhi Foundation through various routes. Many are found on the street by bystanders or police, or are dropped off by poor families who can’t afford to take care of them. Some are runaways, and don’t necessarily have the happiest memories to return to.

About seven years ago, Ramzan Ali ran away from his home in Quetta, the capital of the southern province of Baluchistan, escaping a father who had “a short temper.”

“He used to beat me every day because of some mistakes or without any reason,” said the 14-year-old.

But he said he’s ready to go back despite his bad memories because he misses his family.

Stories like Ramzan’s highlight the difficulties inherent in figuring out what is the best future for these young children.

Edhi officials say the boys have all volunteered to go back, and they don’t force anyone. Aman Ullah, who is in charge of the children’s section at the foundation’s offices in Karachi, says they don’t want to return children to abusive homes, though even those families are usually overjoyed to have their children back.

There is little to no government oversight for organizations like Edhi that fill the gap where the country’s cash-strapped government services leave off. Pakistan has few options to take care of lost or abandoned children, who are often seen begging at street corners and washing car windows for spare change.

Authorities acknowledge that organizations like Edhi fill a valuable role in a country with widespread poverty and rising population.

The head of the Pakistani government organization, Bait-ul-Mal, which is responsible for caring for the country’s neediest, said he has no problems with the bus trip — as long as it’s returning children for whom it’s safe to go back, such as those who were abducted or ran away to find a job to help take care of their family.

“This is a good job, and I think it should be done,” said Tariq Khurshid Malik.

The organizers on the Edhi Foundation’s bus say it isn’t always possible to reunite children with their families. The story of Abdul Samad shows just how difficult it can be.

The eight-year-old remembered his father’s name and that he lived in a town outside of Islamabad near two mountains and a petrol station.

When he and the Edhi officials got there, Abdul recognized the neighborhood and even guided them to a well where the family used to draw water.

They questioned neighbors who vaguely remembered a family who lived in some huts near the road. One person thought the family was now selling milk near the bazaar, but none of the leads panned out.

In the end, officials decided to leave Abdul at the Edhi Foundation’s Islamabad shelter, hoping the search for his family would continue.

As the bus moved on, Abdul wiped tears from his eyes.

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Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed and Zarar Khan contributed to this report.

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Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.

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On the Web:

http://www.edhifoundation.com/

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