KUALA LUMPUR: Twelve-year-old Dhani Ahmad (not his real name) dreams of establishing his own art gallery in the heart of the federal capital.
The Kuala Lumpur-born boy, who has developed an interest in visual arts since the age of six, sets forth his dream by drawing inspiration from famous artists in the country, including influencers who showcase their artistic talents on social media.
However, looking at the lives of Dhani and his peers, who spend much of their time on the streets, making areas like Chow Kit, Lorong Haji Taib and Kampung Baru their playground until the wee hours, begs the question: Can their dreams materialised without a helping hand?
“My family can not afford to send me to art classes, so I learn drawing techniques on TikTok and YouTube. I am usually interested in creating portraits, landscapes and abstract paintings.
“I am also interested in oil painting methods and mural arts and have participated in several mural projects in Kuala Lumpur and beyond,” Dhani told Bernama.
A situation like Dhani’s is not uncommon for children around Chow Kit, where poverty forces them into cramped and uncomfortable living conditions.
According to the fourth child of five siblings, although the life he leads is often associated with the dark side of society, he sees it as a source of inspiration to delve deeper into art to free himself from the streets through his artwork.
“Even though the price of a sketchpad is less than RM30, my father cannot always afford it. I have also tried to earn extra money by painting in Bukit Bintang, but I cannot do it often because of the lack of painting materials, and I have a younger sibling to care for.
“I hope to leave this gloomy neighbourhood and become a renowned artist someday. Together with my friends in Chow Kit, I have witnessed firsthand the various threats here, often labelled as black areas,” he said, adding that he and his siblings are staying in a room rented by his father in Kampung Baru.
Dhani, a student at Sekolah Bimbingan Jalinan Kasih (SBJK) in Chow Kit, walks about eight kilometres from the rented room to his “playground” every day, where he spends time with fellow underprivileged children while waiting for food aid and engaging in activities such as playing football, cycling and more, from 4 pm to 2 or 3 am.
The cramped living conditions experienced by this boy are a shared reality for the majority of children in the area, whose parents can only afford to rent a small room of around 3.04 x 3.04 square metres in size, which needs to be shared with siblings, while some are forced into homelessness.
“Of course, we are scared to hang out until early morning because we have had to flee for our lives from potential kidnappings. It has happened more than once, but we still come back here because we have no other choice,” said Arif Aiman, 12, a good friend of Dhani.
Although he is happy with his life, Arif Aiman dreams of leading a better life in the future.
“I want to become a policeman. I want to fight crime in this neighbourhood,” said the fifth child of 10 siblings, who lives with his father and stepmother in Lorong Haji Taib.
Meanwhile, founder and chief activist of Pertubuhan Jejak Jalanan Azhan Adnan said that the never-ending poverty polemics, among others, caused by the low awareness among parents of the importance of education, lack of spiritual and religious values as well as identity documents, are major obstacles hindering them from leaving the area.
Azhan, better known as ‘abbe’, has been there almost every night for over two years since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. His bond with the residents is particularly evident, especially with the children, who affectionately call him ‘abah’ (father).
By accompanying them, he could see with his own eyes how difficult it is for the residents to get out of the dark environment, often associated with various social problems that could get worse without prompt and proactive intervention.
“Based on the data collected, more than 70 street children are currently in the area. However, the actual number is probably higher because street children are increasing over time, whether born to residents here or migrated from other states.
“As we know, some of them have citizenship documents, and some do not, and they attend school either at government-owned SBJK institutions or those run by NGOs. But the question remains: what happens to them after finishing school? This is not given proper attention, which is why most of these children drop out of school,” he said.
Living in poverty with such low daily wages, they are compelled to rely on food aid or kitchen supplies, forcing them to prioritise providing for their families over their children’s education.
When asked about the future of these children when they grow up, Azhan said that not only will they continue to live there, but they will also inherit the poverty and lifestyle of their parents.
“These children do not see the outside world because they are ‘trapped’ here. If the government does not intervene, this situation may worsen and be inherited from one generation to another.
“The time has come for the fate of the street children to be given serious attention, especially since the MADANI government has pledged to tackle the issue of school dropouts. Only education can change them,” he said. -Bernama