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Surajo Sagir, a 12-year-old Almajiri student in Kano, stands with his plastic begging bowl in front of his school.Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail

Clutching his green plastic begging bowl, 12-year-old Surajo Sagir spends up to seven hours a day on the city streets, trudging from door to door in search of food.

"My feet get tired and sore," he says. "Most times in the daytime I'm hungry. Sometimes I get food, sometimes I get nothing or hardly anything."

Surajo, a thin and solemn boy in a knock-off Prada T-shirt, is one of the millions of Almajiri students in Nigeria: children who study the Koran at impoverished boarding schools, far from their rural homes, while supporting themselves by begging or working at menial jobs.

It's a traditional system of religious education that's increasingly coming under scrutiny and attempted reform. Critics say the system leaves the children at risk of exploitation in the streets, vulnerable to the temptations of crime and drugs, and potentially in danger of recruitment by extremist groups such as Boko Haram.

The government estimates there are up to nine-million Almajiris in Nigeria, mostly in northern cities such as Kano. In most cases, their parents remove them from their village homes when they are 6 or 7, sending them to faraway Koranic schools where they rarely see their parents again. They usually sleep in shabby overcrowded rooms, 15 or 20 to a room, while dividing their days between three main tasks: memorizing the Koran, praying, and begging or working.

Ragtag gangs of Almajiri children are a common sight on the streets of northern Nigerian cities. They tramp from house to house with their ever-present begging bowls, or dodge into traffic to beg from motorists.

Fearing they were becoming a menace to traffic and their own safety, Kano's state government recently passed a law to keep them off the main roads, although the law is loosely enforced. But there are many more hazards from the Almajiri system. Children can endanger their health in the dirt and dust of the ramshackle schools. They are at risk of illiteracy by studying only the Koran. And with their parents absent, their poverty leaves them exposed to the attractions of crime and extremism.

The link to Boko Haram has not been clearly established, but the Almajiri system is traditionally dominant in Borno state, where the radical Islamist militia was born. Boko Haram is known to recruit jobless boys and young men by offering them money. And human-rights activists believe that the group's notorious leader, Abubakar Shekau, was himself an Almajiri in his childhood in Borno state. Boko Haram, whose name is usually translated as "Western education is forbidden," has often attacked secular schools across northern Nigeria, burning their buildings and killing and kidnapping students and teachers.

The word Almajiri means migrant in the Hausa language, alluding to their journey from remote homes to the Koranic schools. But the journey is spurred by desperate poverty. Many of their parents are poor farmers who can't afford even the relatively small cost of state schools. Others are fishermen who can't make a living because Lake Chad has shrunk from climate change and overuse. Still others were textile workers who lost their jobs when factories closed.

Critics argue, however, that poverty is not the only factor. They also blame the parents for clinging to tradition. "How can they leave their kids to roam the streets?" asks Baraka Bashir, spokeswoman for the Almajiri Foundation, an organization in Kano that supports the Almajiris with food and shelter and helps connect them to local families who are willing to assist them.

"These children are highly vulnerable," she says. "Anything can happen to them. They can be knocked down by a car. They can be molested. They don't get an education, and they end up wasting their lives and becoming thugs."

Surajo, the solemn 12-year-old with the green begging bowl, sleeps in a tiny bare room at his school with 14 other boys. His entire life's belongings – a few items of old clothing – are contained in a second-hand cement sack. His parents live 160 kilometres away and he has seen them only three times in the past five years. "I miss my home," he says softly.

Despite the hardships, he says he likes reading the Koran. He rises every day at 5 a.m. for prayers, then begins his studies under a cleric's supervision. Three times a day, his schoolwork stops and he goes onto the streets to beg, often for hours at a time.

"It's difficult," he says. "I'm patient."

His teachers, anxious to dispel the rumours of crime among the Almajiris, say they whip any student who steals, damages property, touches anyone or throws stones.

At a nearby Almajiri school, filthy water flows across the broken pavement into the street gutter, just beside the dusty outdoor classroom. The only toilet is a smelly outhouse, shared by all of the school's 150 students.

One of its students, 15-year-old Saifullahi Musa, explains that he has a "master" – a woman who gives him the equivalent of about $1 a day to do errands for her and to help her run a small shop. She also gives him food and clothing and a place to sleep. He gives about a third of his meagre earnings to the Koranic school.

He says the woman chose him, three years ago, "because I was quiet and I wasn't a troublemaker." He likes the arrangement. "I've always been obedient and she's never beaten me," he says.

Another student, 20-year-old Sabin Musa, has been at the school for 10 years now. He earns about $1 a day by washing clothes or helping at a small shop, giving about a fifth of his income to his school.

He says he is happy studying the Koran. "Without it, you are nobody in your religion."

Yet he plans to enter a secular school in two years, when he has finished memorizing the Koran. He expects to spend another 10 years getting a secular education.

"If you don't get an education, you can't do anything with your life," he says.

"It's a way of belonging. You can't understand the world without it. The world is a global village."