BEIRUT: More than 1 million Syrian children have fled violence in their homeland, the United Nations announced Friday. Of that 1 million, Lebanon has taken the greatest number of registered Syrian refugee children in the region – some 350,000. To cope with extreme poverty and harsh living conditions, many refugee families have had to send their youngsters to work, a large number of whom are underage.
These children, who usually either work menial jobs for little pay, or are forced to beg on the streets, are also subject to harassment and humiliation, and have to give up their education as neither they nor their parents are able to afford tuition.
Hasan, 16, arrived in Lebanon from a Syrian village near the eastern city of Deir al-Zor just over a month ago to work and help support his family.
He had already left school after completing ninth grade, and as the oldest of three children, is hoping to save up a sum of money to return to Syria in a month or two.
He works in a small restaurant in Downtown Beirut, in a job arranged by an older cousin who was already in Lebanon, and still hasn’t been told how much his salary will be.
Hasan works from 7 a.m. to around 6 p.m. and lives with three young men in the suburb of Dikwaneh, but doesn’t know much else about a country where Syrians are often subjected to harassment.
“The people I work with take me to where I can catch a service taxi, and I go straight home every day,” he says. “That’s all I know here – from work to home, from home to work, every day.”
Roaming around the busy street of Hamra is 15-year-old Ammar Mohammad Salem. Holding an empty Nido milk bucket in one hand and his shoe-shining equipment in the other, Salem goes around kissing a LL10,000 note and pointing it toward the sky.
“I’ve been living in Bir Hasan for four months now,” he says. “After constant shelling and bombardment I had to leave Deraa with my family.”
Leaving home isn’t an easy choice, but for children like Salem, it was the only one they had. He gestures to his group of shoe-shiners and says they shouldn’t be walking together in case it attracts the ire of a police officer.
He says he wishes he was home.
“If we walk in a group we’re perceived as beggars,” he said. “I don’t like it here. I do want to leave.”
Having to pay $400 a month for rent and making a maximum of LL20,000 per day, Salem feels like the weight of the world has been put on his shoulders.
An 18-year-old who goes by the name of Abu Ahmad tells a similar story. Living in Lebanon for a year and a half now, Abu Ahmad speaks about the huge responsibility that he and his two brothers had taken on.
“I am here with my mom and three sisters,” he says.
“Raids, destruction and bombings ... we had to escape [Syria].”
“My dad passed away a couple of years ago,” he adds.
As an officially registered refugee, Abu Ahmad and each of his family members receive LL40,000 from the United Nations on a monthly basis.
Yet, with him working on a construction site, his older brother as a hair dresser and $600 rent to pay, Abu Ahmad has had to endure harsh living conditions.
Taking comfort under a tree next to Bliss Street is Fatima al-Hasan, 12. She’s a new arrival, and has spent most of the last two weeks begging on the streets of Hamra.
“I came from Damascus with my family after my school got attacked and a number of my friends were killed,” Fatima says as she waits for a generous passer-by.
Fatima walks Hamra street from 9 a.m. till midnight.
“I have to work as a beggar, I don’t have a choice,” she explains with a defeated smile. “My parents don’t force me to go out and beg, I just go out and do it.”
Having left Syria with nothing but a bundle of nostalgic memories, Fatima and her parents are now living under Beirut’s Cola Bridge, where many other refugees reside in small and informal settlements, hoping to return home as soon as they can.
Home is something Mohammad Hussein dreams of too. The 19-year-old left Damascus with his mother and brother after it became too unbearable and dangerous for them some six months ago.
But the Palestinian-Syrian refugee was separated from his sister and father in the process. He now lives in an apartment in the city of Sidon, where he pays $200 for rent.
Choosing to work as a house painter, Hussein, like so many others, continues to hope the war will come to an end so life can go back to normal.
In the Beirut suburb of Dikwaneh, two young boys with worn-down clothes, sandals that are too big for their feet and dirty faces run after a woman walking a small dog in an attempt to pet him, large smiles on their faces.
Ahmad Joumaa, 12, and Ali Mohammad, 11, both fled Aleppo with their relatives and have been living in the impoverished Beirut suburb of Nabaa for the last two years.
They beg on the streets together, and usually wait for heavy traffic to knock on car windows and ask for money.
“My parents died before the war,” Joumaa says. “I live with my older brother who works in a cardboard factory.”
Mohammad’s father sells biscuits and gum on the side of the street, not far from where the boys stand.
At one point while they are begging, two Lebanese men on motorcycles stop nearby and spew insults at the young boys before driving off.
It is not a rare occurrence, according to Mohammad.
But for the boys, begging is a job, no different from waiting tables or sitting behind a desk. They find humor in this, and proceed to say that they both go to school in Nabaa.
“I can read English!” Mohammad exclaims enthusiastically.
Not far from Dikwaneh, on the bustling streets of Burj Hammoud, green-eyed Rinas Oso walks around carrying hot coffee cups.
The 13-year-old doesn’t seem to mind circling the densely populated streets for a living. He buys the beverages from a nearby coffee shop and sells them to whoever desires an afternoon sip.
Oso is from Sukkari, a neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo, and has been in Lebanon for a year, living in Burj Hammoud.
Unlike other refugee children who are denied education, he attended the Armenian school of Hripsimiantz last year, and will attend this year as well – although he says he still has to work during the summer.
“I have to make some money, don’t I?” he says.
Oso fidgets as he speaks and more than once explains he is worried he will be kidnapped, although he says has never been subjected to serious cases of harassment.
As he talks, a nearby refugee child, who declined to speak to The Daily Star, warns his friend repeatedly over the threat of kidnapping, even insinuating that his interviewer could be a perpetrator.
“It’s okay here, but I really want to go back [to Syria],” Oso said, ignoring the warnings.