A Swiss charity has given 50 children who were found living rough in the capital of Ethiopia the chance and confidence to rebuild their lives.
Sport The Bridge started its project in Addis Ababa at the end of 2004, targeting the city’s estimated 60,000-100,000 street children.
The charity has the backing of Adolf Ogi, organiser of the United Nations-sponsored 2005 Year of Sport, and receives a large part of its project funding from the Swiss government.
Children up to the age of 14 were invited to visit a centrally located sports compound run by the charity where they can play football, basketball and volleyball for up to three hours a day.
They receive food and medical treatment for their ailments and are encouraged to shower and disinfect their clothes.
The four Swiss team leaders are shadowed by their Ethiopian counterparts, who will take over the running of the compound at the end of 2006.
Psychiatrist Stephan Zihler, founder and president of Sport The Bridge, wanted to ensure local people have the skills they need to continue the project.
Four of the six Ethiopian sports assistants were once homeless themselves, so they understand what their students are going through. One is a former national soccer and basketball star and enjoys hero status among his young protégés.
Many of the street children were abused and tortured before their arrival at the compound.
Zihler said the first challenge is to teach the children social behaviour through team games and to restore their trust in adults.
The second goal is to locate the children’s families and rebuild relationships that had broken down, causing the children to leave home.
"We have to make sport and family life more addictive than street life," Zihler told swissinfo.
Relatives have been traced for all but a couple of the 50 young visitors to the centre, and most of the children now live at home.
Twelve-year-old Dembaru was abducted from his home five years ago, probably for child labour.
"His abductor punished every mistake by pouring boiling water over him, leaving Dembaru with a mutilated right hand and serious mental scars," Zihler explained.
Family liaison officer, Simona Frei, managed to trace Dembaru’s mother, Sinkanesh, who had given up hope of ever seeing her child again.
She now visits the sports compound twice a week and plays table tennis with her son in an effort to get to know him. Sinkanesh is also paid for knitting clothes for the children.
Mesret, 16, was a prostitute when she came to Sport The Bridge. Frei helped her find a place in a hostel. Mesret now attends night school to try to fill the gaps in her education.
The Bridge team is now preparing the children for school in September. Project participants have been asked to contribute a small amount towards their own expenses to give them a sense of ownership and commitment.
Zihler says it is a critical stage. "If the children decide not to stay at home or not to go to school, they could easily end up back on the streets."
Political instability has created an explosive environment in Addis Ababa. When Ethiopian security forces fired on students in June, killing 36 people in three days of post-election violence, Sport The Bridge staff were in the centre of the turmoil.
Zihler and Frei had to ring the Swiss embassy for advice on how to leave the compound and find a path to safety through streets still resounding with gunfire.
During a recent trip to Switzerland, they explained how stressful it was to work in a place where people live in fear of political repression, as well as suffering from abject poverty.
Sixty per cent of the city’s three-and-a-half million inhabitants are unemployed. The country has more than five million orphans, their parents lost to disease, war and Aids.
"It’s impossible to walk through the streets without beggars clinging to you," Frei explained. "There’s a very big risk of burn-out doing this kind of work. Even so, it’s been very rewarding."
Zihler and Frei plan to return to Switzerland in December, but the project will carry on with a new set of Swiss volunteers.
Sport The Bridge will not be based permanently in Addis Ababa. "What we have done is to develop an exportable model for using sport as a development tool," Zihler said.
"Organisations such as the UN have better resources than us for implementing the models we have evolved."
swissinfo, Julie Hunt
Ethiopia has a population of around 70 million. Five million are orphans.
The Sport The Bridge project in Ethiopia costs SFr180,000 a year ($140,000).
The four Swiss staff members in Addis Ababa are volunteers.
Sport The Bridge, a Swiss charity, works in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
It has reunited 50 street children with their families, using sport as a means of tempting them away from lives of crime.