When I think of Russia, I am reminded of one of the most significant time of my childhood, a time when I realised that although physically I was a child, mentally I had become an adult, at the age of 9. Until this time I hadn’t completely said goodbye to my childhood. I could no longer run wild, be noisy or be irresponsible, because I had become the main breadwinner of my house.
It was the winter of 1995 when my dad hurt his back and could no longer work. It was his daily earning at the Spartivniya market in Moscow that put food on the table. We lived in a one bedroom apartment, with all six of us sharing one room. We had two single beds, my mum and dad used to sleep on the floor.
With my dad’s back pain and our savings running out, things became stressful at home. Mum and dad would fight more often and I couldn’t stand the shouting. When my dad was working in the market I would occasionally visit him and bring him his lunch. While there, I always noticed young boys come up to his stall and offer to sell him cigarettes.
One day I stood up in front of my mum and dad and said: “mum, dad I have an idea, I want to sell cigarettes at the market like those other kids and bring home money for food.” My parents objected but I would have none of it. The next morning I woke up at 4:30 in the morning, took some money out of my dad’s wallet and sneaked out of the house. I knew my way around the Moscow underground very well, so I was confident I wasn’t going to get lost.
When I reached the market, I waited in the cold, outside the gates until it opened. While everyone was busy preparing their stalls, I went up to the guy selling boxes of cigarettes and bought a box. I hid the box under my jacket and started to walk towards the first row of stalls, stopping at each stall, selling the cigarettes. By the end of that row, the box which contained 12 packs of cigarettes had finished. I was surprised how quickly I managed to sell them and the amount of money I made. Smiling, I went up to the guy again, and this time I bought two boxes.
I had a very successful day at the market and headed home, having made the money my dad would have made in three days in one day. Back home my parents were very angry with me and told me they had been looking for me everywhere. Since my dad’s condition was getting worse and no chance of him returning to work any time soon, my parents agreed to let me continue selling cigarettes. My twin brother also joined me.
Every morning I would wake up early and wake my brother up as well. Without breakfast we would leave the house, take the Metro to the market. It was a competitive world our there with the other kids. It helped that there was two of us, I would half the box with my brother and we would take a row of stalls each. A man once told me: “little girl I don’t smoke but I am going to buy this cigarette of you so that you can take home some money.” In a way it helped that I was the only girl in the business.
Of course there were under cover cops trying to catch us in action. We were the little hustlers of Spartivniya market. One day as I was just about to take out a pack of cigarette from under my jacket I got caught. The officer asked me what I was doing with the cigarette pack in my hand. I told him I wasn’t selling it, that my dad worked in the market and I bought it for him. He said: “you know I don’t believe you, I’ve seen you sell them, but I’m going to let you go this time. If I see you again, what I usually do to girls is, I pull them by the ponytail”. Of course that did not stop me; I just kept an eye out for him.
My brother and I did this for a few months and from the money we made, we were also able to save up some of it, which my parents put towards the money we needed to move to Germany. Soon my dad felt better and could go back to work and me and my brother no longer needed to sell cigarettes.
I was first reminded of this experience (after a long time) last year in Marrakech, Morocco. A little girl came up to me to sell me a box of tissues, but she was soon distracted by the food I was eating on the table. Instead of money she asked if she could have some of my food and my drink, which I of course gave to her. Soon a few other street kids came over asking for food. I bought them some biscuits, ice cream and chocolates from the shop.
The same happened when I was in Kabul, Afghanistan last year. I came across so many street kids, selling cigarettes, chewing gum and boxes of tissues. While I was sitting in my cousin’s car waiting for him to return from the shop, a little boy knocked on the window and offered to sell me chewing gum. I looked at him and I remembered what that man said to me in Moscow: “little girl I don’t smoke but I am going to buy this cigarette of you so that you can take home some money.” I didn’t take the chewing gum of him but gave him 50 Afghanis, and he walked away smiling.
It is true that our past shapes our future. Had we not struggled, experienced love and pain, lost a loved one, cried and laughed, would we be who we are today? So I say, cherish every memory, good or bad. Don’t judge people because every person you meet is fighting a hard battle. Try to spend time and get know the people in your life a little better. There is always more to people than the eye meets and the ears hear.
This story is dedicated to the street kids of Afghanistan and Morocco. And all the street kids around the world. I’m with you.