To be young, Syrian and a refugee in the streets of Beirut

Thousands of children work the streets in Lebanon's capital, shining shoes or selling flowers, doing anything to survive

A Syrian boy eats a loaf of bread in the doorway of an apartment building in a wealthy section of Beirut. Lebanon is now home to the largest population of Syrian refugees, including more than 400,000 children.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

BEIRUT — Jihad is a Syrian boy from Homs who sells flowers on the streets of Beirut.  His earnings pay for his family’s food and housing. He fled Syria with his family when the conflict broke out there three years ago. His hands, clothes and face are smudged with black grime.

Jihad is one of thousands of Syrian children who work on the streets of Lebanon’s cities in order to support themselves and their families.

“They sell roses, beg for money, clean your windscreen, sell chewing gum — sometimes they sell themselves,” said Maher Tabarani, director of the Home of Hope charity, which takes care of street children.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are more than 400,000 child refugees from Syria currently in Lebanon, more than the population of Lebanese children in public schools.

According to UNICEF, 1 in 10 of those refugee children work.

Child labor isn’t new to Lebanon, but it has visibly increased since the start of the Syria crisis, said Miriam Azar, an emergency communication specialist at UNICEF Lebanon — especially in terms of children working on the streets in urban areas, as well as in fields in the agricultural sector, and also in industrial zones.

A street scene

On a recent Friday night in a Beirut neighborhood filled with bars and restaurants, children as young as 3 and 4 years old maneuvered between idling Porsches and Land Rovers in front of busy clubs and restaurants. The children peddled their wares to the vehicles’ drivers stuck in traffic, and to the bar patrons smoking and drinking on the sidewalk.

Most of the patrons ignored the children or politely declined a purchase. Others gave them a few dollars.

Then there were those who were abusive.

“There are [more than 1 million Syrians] in Lebanon, and they are ruining the country’s image,” a middle-aged Lebanese man interjected as an Al Jazeera reporter spoke with Jihad.

“The Syrians, the Palestinians — they are embarrassing us in this country,’’ said the man, who wouldn’t give his name. “If they weren’t here, this would be the best country in the world. This kid should be in school and in bed by now. The Lebanese government doesn’t care about them, and their fathers send them to work.”

When Jihad told him this wasn’t true, the man grew angry. 

“Two more words and I will slap you in the face and make you spit blood,” he threatened. “Get out of here!”

The man then stomped off.

“Children selling goods on the streets are extremely vulnerable to violence, robbery, sexual abuse and exploitation, also through sex rings and even illegal organ trade,” UNICEF’s Azar said. “Children on the streets are also at risk of prey by child trafficking networks.”

The lucky ones

Fifteen-year old Khaled is one of the Syrian children working on Beirut’s streets.  He shines shoes on Hamra Street all day, a job that carries the risk of getting arrested — or worse — for soliciting. 

“The police take our shoeshine box and they beat us,” said Khaled, who claimed he has been jailed 13 times in the past two years.

Mohammad, a Syrian boy from the city of Daraa, collects scrap metal to sell in a well-to-do section of Beirut.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Khaled said he’s not as vulnerable to exploitation as other kids, because he is older and works with his cousins and relatives from Daraa, in Syria. He said Lebanese on the street occasionally push them to the ground and swear at them. 

But Khaled dishes out the same treatment to smaller shoeshine boys who may not have such a big family to back them up. When a younger kid tried to nudge in on one of Khaled’s potential customers, he threatened him with physical violence. 

Khaled and his brother support 11 other family members on the income they generate from their shoe-shining venture. They are the lucky ones. Unlike a lot of kids in Lebanon, they have familial networks to rely on and a safe place to sleep and eat. That’s something that kids who end up at the Home of Hope do not have. 

Affliliated with the Anglican Church, the home has doubled its capacity since the conflict in Syria erupted and the number of street children surged, according to Tabarani, the home’s director.

Some have been abandoned by their families, some have run away from abusive households and others came to Lebanon alone. UNICEF reports that more than 4,000 children from Syria have crossed borders into neighboring countries with no adult to look after them.

He’s seen it all

The Home of Hope is now responsible for 64 children, all of them sent to the home by court order. In Tabarani’s two years managing the home, he’s seen it all, he said.

“Because of the poverty, and uneducated families, [Syrians] will do anything to survive and make money,” he said. “So you will see we have rape cases arranged by the family, like pedophilia. Some kids were raised to be organ donors by their families, as if they are spare parts. There are also many prostitution rings because of the Syrian crisis. There’s a lot of desperation.”

One of the children at the Home of Hope is a thin 11-year-old, Jamal. He avoids direct eye contact and tries to hide the scars on his arm, some of which appear to be from self-inflicted cuts. He came to Lebanon from Aleppo three years ago with his family — then they abandoned him. He sells flowers on the street to survive, and makes around $20 per day. He has had to take care of himself on the streets and has grown up way too fast.

“I would always get into fights,” he said. “People would curse at me or hit me. My left arm was injured when I fought with another kid about who would get to sell roses first to a group of people. He pulled out a razor blade and slashed my arm.”

The Lebanese police arrested Jamal three months ago and brought him to the Home of Hope.

Fourteen-year old Mustafa has been here even longer: seven months. The Syrian-Palestinian and his family fled from Damascus to Lebanon when the Syria conflict began and the government began shelling their neighborhood.  

Once they were in Lebanon, his father became abusive, and Mustafa ran away. He worked on Beirut’s seafront, and slept there, until one night a few months ago, when a man tried to rape him. He fought with the man, and the police arrested Mustafa and brought him to the Home of Hope.

A Syrian boy waits for shoeshine customers in a neighborhood of Beirut, where thousands of Syrian child refugees work the streets.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“I like it here,” said Mustafa, who said he wants to be a computer engineer. “If I wanted to leave I could have. I’m studying here, and I have a place to sleep. When I sleep on the streets in Beirut, I don’t know people. I can defend myself, but I feel better here.”

Missionaries run the Home of Hope, and they preach several times a week to their semi-captive audience. On a recent visit, a missionary led dozens of the home’s children in song with lyrics that praised Jesus Christ. 

“He came to save us, to show the way, even if our feet may stray, your soul is in us and around us,” the children sang to a karaoke-like video portraying the life of Jesus with lyrics at the bottom.

Mustafa is among the 90 percent of the kids at the home who are non-Christian.    

“I’m a Muslim, but I’ve never learned anything about Islam,” he said. “So I don’t know how it will turn out.”

The Home of Hope receives its funding from donations and from the Lebanese government. Tabarani said that the children are not compelled to attend religious services — and that they are all free to worship as they wish. However, he said the home does not stock any Qurans on the premises.

“The kids would need to bring their own,” he said.

Despite the religious undertones, 11-year-old Jamal said he likes it. He’s taking English lessons, and proudly counts to 10.  

“It’s better than living outside,” he said. “Everything is better. Outside I live on the streets. Here I don’t live on the streets.”

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