BEIRUT: Half-falling, half-running. Every day in Beirut’s central Hamra district they play and beg, little balls of matted hair, not speaking but already fluent in the language of poverty; the outstretched hand and averted gazes from passersby. Some of these children may have never seen Syria, although their lives have been forever changed by the Syrian revolution five years ago.
About 70% of Syrians in Lebanon are living below the Lebanese extreme poverty line. The effect on children here is huge and will have significant long-term consequences. Behind the headlines and statistics of an ever worsening refugee situation, there are families and children with their own stories living in extreme poverty.
On the buzzing Mar-Mikhael road, weaving in and out of the Friday night revellers, children who are perhaps eight or nine years old, try to sell chewing gum. One boy, Ahmed, works his way through the crowds, dismissed with a hand gesture or just ignored. He has a calm smile and articulate manner that makes him appear much older than his appearance would belie.
“I am from Homs and my family now live in Tripoli, but I come and spend five days here” He pauses briefly to offer chewing gum to a group of Lebanese teenagers, unsuccessfully.
“We are taken from Tripoli and sleep on the street when we are in Beirut. My mother needs medicine so I have to come here to work.” He doesn’t attend school.
Since the Syrian revolution in 2011, Lebanon’s economic situation has deteriorated significantly. Public services, already over-stretched before the Syrian crisis, are overwhelmed due to the number of refugees who now account for a quarter of the population. Medical services are barely provided to anyone without money. There have been cases of people dying outside of hospitals in Lebanon because they did not have the money upfront to pay for surgery.
Medical issues are one of many reasons pushing families to take their children out of school and send them to work on the street. There are estimated to be between 1500 and 4500 children working and living on the street in Lebanon, 25% of them are under 9 years old. They are not all Syrian either; about a quarter are Palestinian or Lebanese.
Although many Lebanese citizens are working to try and help alleviate the poverty in their country, others are skeptical. Mohamed, a Lebanese-American from West Beirut, confidently tells me: “some of the ones you see here on the street earn more money from begging than most people do from working”. I wondered how much the eleven year-old boy I saw asleep by the side of the road earned.
According to UNHCR, half of the refugees in Lebanon are children, and in the 15-17 year-old bracket only 5% attend school. This situation is not getting better and it is ensnaring a generation of children living on the edge. The valuable time they should be spending learning and developing themselves is instead used up on the street. If they cannot equip themselves with the skills they need to rebuild their lives when the war eventually ends, then the future for Syria, and the region looks bleak.
Two weeks after talking with Ahmed I saw him again. No calm smile, just a vague look with intoxicated eyes. Repeating himself, he sold me some chewing gum and then wondered off down an alley. Another childhood stolen by a war he has nothing to do with.
Oliver Berthoud is a contributor for Global Public Policy Watch on Middle Eastern Issues. As an expert on the Middle East, he has spent a considerable amount of time in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Afghanistan. His academic speciality is in Minority Muslim Communities and he is a University of Exeter alumnus. He is an Arabic speaker and currently resides in Beirut, Lebanon.
Cover image ‘Syrian refugee children in the Ketermaya refugee camp‘ by World Bank Photo Collection