Iqbal ended up on the streets of Delhi at the age of five. Now he’s off the street and in his last year of high school, working as a tour guide for Salaam Baalak Trust and thinking about one day going abroad to experience the world outside India.
How did you come to live on the streets of Delhi?
At the age of five I left my home because my father used to beat me a lot and my mother always fought with my father. One day my parents got separated and the consequence was that me and my elder brother lived with my father and my sister went with my mother.
I lived with him for a few days and when he realized that I’ve got no money for him, he left me in the market. I was waiting for him, but he didn’t come back. While I was waiting, I met a couple who told me they were my auntie and uncle and that my father wasn’t coming back. Therefore, I went to their home and started working for them. They always beat me and sometimes they put chilli in my eyes.
So after that I thought, if this is life, I don’t want this life anymore. I planned to run away from there. I waited until it was dark and went to a railway station, took a train and arrived at Old Delhi railway station.
Where did you come from?
That’s a question for myself. I don’t know where I’m from.
Do you remember how you got to Delhi?
I just took a train. I didn’t know where it was going and ended up at Old Delhi railway station. There I spent one or two months and then I wanted to go to Delhi because they provide more facilities. So I asked people, “I want to go to Delhi?” They said, “Are you crazy? Because you’re living in Delhi and you’re asking to go to Delhi!”
You hopped the right train! Did you sneak on the train?
Yeah, I just hid myself in the toilet and then under the chair.
Smart kid, at five years old that’s a lot to know! So what did you do over the years to survive on the streets?
When I came to Delhi I was hungry so I was begging for food, but no one gave me anything so I ate scraps of food. But slowly I got ideas how to survive. I started collecting plastic bottles and plastic stuff and selling to the recycle shop. Afterwards I met a boy who was in a good relationship with a gang. So I started working with the gang. There my work was to fill tap water into bottles and sell them on the train for 5 Rs. I used to earn 100 Rs a day ($2 CAD), and had to give 75 percent of that amount to the gang for my security. So I got less than 25 Rs, which was really difficult for me to live my life. Then I started working in a tea stall. I worked there for four weeks and afterwards they didn’t give me money so I left and started working at a small roadside restaurant. They also didn’t give me money, but they gave me a place to sleep and food as well.
Where did you live over the years?
Sometimes I’d live on the train. I’d sleep on overnight trains and when I’d wake up the next morning I didn’t know how long I’d travelled. Sometimes I lived in the restaurant where I worked. And sometimes on the road, but the police beat me. So I had no option, I had to run.
Why did they beat you?
That’s a good question. But, you can’t live in all the states in the country (on the street).
What was the toughest part about living on the streets?
Working many hours and spending all my energy, but not getting paid.
One day I was selling plastic bottles on the train and saw a ticket collector. I was very scared because I knew that if I wanted to travel on the train I must have a ticket. So I jumped the train and got injured very badly. My head was broken here and there [points to head in two places].
I got injured and people took me to the government hospital. There I spent six months in recovery. Then I came back on the streets and after a few days I met a lady who asked me if I wanted to study. But I was very scared because of my auntie and uncle who beat me. But she convinced me to get an education and finally I agreed and went to the charity in Gurgaon (suburb of Delhi)—a home for homeless children. So, I went to private school there.
A friend told me about Salaam Baalak Trust (a full-care facility for street children) and I came to a contact point and lived here for four years. Then I moved out once I turned 18.
Have you had any contact with your family?
What are your aspirations in life?
Since childhood I’ve had a dream to become a software engineer. My desire has been to work for Microsoft or Apple. But since I’m working here in the city as a guide, I’m quite inspired to do this work. So maybe for a certain time I will be a professional tour guide. I love to meet new people, share cultures and learn about Indian culture. I love it. I feel happy doing this!
I’m sure you’ve learned a lot of entrepreneurial skills on the street. You have to be resourceful and smart in order for you to do what you did.
If you don’t motivate yourself, you can’t do anything. There’s nobody behind you to support you. You just have to believe in yourself. The first time I did begging I realized it is very bad work because I have good hands and I can work, so I started working.
Do you see yourself becoming an entrepreneur or working for a company?
I don’t like working for a boss. I’d like to get a job that gives me flexibility to do what I want to do. I love to travel and see what’s going on in the world.
Where would you like to go the most?
I’ve been in many places in India. Indian culture is very good, but still I’m thinking I should go abroad some day. Maybe Europe or somewhere else.
April 12th is the International Day for Street Children, an event that gives a voice to the millions of street children around the world. Sign a pledge to stand up for the rights of street children.