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World: Ahead Of Children's Day, Young People Talk About Hopes And Fears

By Elena Nikleva/Kathleen Knox

On 1 June, many countries around the world will be celebrating International Children's Day. RFE/RL spoke with some of the young delegates who earlier this month attended the United Nations session on children, and asked about their concerns and hopes for the future.

Prague, 31 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Tomorrow is International Children's Day, and celebrations in many countries around the world will revolve around fun and games for the young.

But despite progress made in recent years, children's rights are still all too often overlooked, and millions of children around the world still suffer from neglect, disease, or exploitation.

The AIDS epidemic orphaned some 2.3 million children in 2000 alone. The United Nations estimates that 10 million children died of preventable diseases in the 1990s. And there are some 300,000 child soldiers fighting in wars.

These and other horror stories were heard at a UN special session, held earlier this month in New York, dedicated to the world's children and adolescents. Delegates approved a document called "A World Fit For Children," setting out commitments on health, education, and protection from abuse.

The landmark meeting brought together leaders from governmental and nongovernmental organizations. But it also gathered some 400 child delegates from around the world for a special Children's Forum to discuss key issues.

So what did the young people have to say? RFE spoke to some of the delegates about their hopes and fears.

Some live with the ever-present threat of danger, like 17-year-old Elad Schaffer from Israel, where conflict and suicide bombings have claimed the lives of hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians in recent months.

Schaffer said the conflict has touched him personally, as one of his friends was shot a short distance from his house. But he added that, as hard as life is, it "just proves to us the need for peace."

"I live in a dangerous place. People were shot in a road that I cross two times a day. And [close] to where I study, there was a terrorist attack where 20 people died in the center of Jerusalem. So it's hard. But, you know, we've got to keep on going, otherwise it's a price for terrorism, which might have a great influence worldwide. If the terrorists see that what they're working for is achievable -- that the means that they are using are working -- it could spread to any country," Schaffer said.

Elad said he harbors no hatred toward Palestinians and that he works closely with young Palestinians -- as well as Jordanians and Egyptians -- in a youth peace group. He said this gives him hope that the Middle East conflict can eventually be resolved.

"I've met Palestinians; I've been coexisting with them for weeks; I've been sharing a bunk bed and table with them. I've experienced it; I've seen a sort of small peace. So I do think it's possible [to have peace]," Schaffer said.

In other parts of the world, disease is the No. 1 blight on children's lives. Thirteen-year-old Alliyah Allie comes from South Africa, where AIDS and HIV infection are widespread. She said that young people often do know that HIV can be sexually transmitted and that unprotected sex puts people at risk of infection. But she said that many still believe it won't happen to them. One of her friends had that attitude too, until Allie took action.

"I have a friend who was very sexually active, and what we did was we took her to see someone who is dying from HIV/AIDS. We took her to go see this person who couldn't talk -- they didn't have the energy to talk. So we went and we showed her this person and she said, 'If I continue going on like this will this happen to me?' And we told her, 'Yes it will, that eventually if you go on changing partners and you go on the way you are going on it will finally happen to you, and what are you going to do then? There's no turning back,'" Allie said.

Fifteen-year-old Aigul Khodyashova from Kazakhstan told RFE/RL she's seen how poverty affects children's lives in her home country. "When I go to school I see children who get on public transportation and beg for money. That means they're not studying [and] they're not going to school. You can see they have nothing and their parents make them go out and earn money. [But] it's possible to change this. I'm convinced, I believe this, because every problem can be eradicated and I think that poverty can be gotten rid of," Khodyashova said.

Alexandru Rossu, a 16-year-old from Romania, has his own recipe for helping eradicate child poverty: a bit more sharing. "If we can't really produce money ourselves, we can at least share the resources we've got. As children and young people, we can really try to equalize the resources we have. There are children who have plenty of money; they have many, many things and rich parents and stuff, and they keep it all for themselves. I'm not saying they should give it all up, but maybe they could try to help some friends or help some people get over a bad period," Rossu said.

In Azerbaijan, 17-year-old Sevinj Masieva said she's a member of a youth group that works with the country's many refugees. "The children are faced with health problems, education problems, [and] with information problems. But when we ask them what they want from this world, they say a return to their motherland. We know that these children have no hope for the world. I think all adults of the world and all children of the world must make a peaceful future for every child," Masieva said.

Young delegates from the prosperous Western world had slightly different, though also serious, concerns. In the United States, alarm over the number of children killed each year by guns prompted 15-year-old Theo Milonopoulos and his twin brother Nico to start up an organization run by, and for, children, called Kids' Voice L.A. (Los Angeles).

"I actually started this when I was 11 years old and it really stemmed from the fear of being shot. A lot of incidents happened in my own personal life dealing with gun violence and then all the school shootings started across America and you know, I was afraid to go to school anymore. I figured I shouldn't have to be afraid to go to school or go anywhere I would want to go because of this fear of gun violence," Theo Milonopoulos said.

British delegate Tom Burke, who is 17, said Britain has its poor children too, despite a government pledge to cut the numbers of children living in poverty.

"For example, to go to school in the U.K. you need a uniform and you need money to buy food. Not every child in the U.K. has that money and that means their quality of life is bad; they get bullied by their friends. Poverty is an international issue that affects many children across the globe. There's two types of poverty: There's absolute poverty where you live on less than $1 a day, and there's relative poverty. And many children in the U.K, Western Europe, and the U.S. live under the [relative] poverty line," Burke said.

Burke said children should be able to live free from poverty, war, and disease, and to be educated and have access to health care. "I think that's truly a world fit for children and what we deserve," he said.