Culture

KIDS WITH GUM

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by Joseph Attaman

*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the children

“I’m Double A, I’m more famous than the Lebanese flag.”

Standing outside Mar Mikhael’s most well known bar, some might say this is the kind of introduction you could expect from a Radio Beirut regular. With his toothy grin and flat cap peaked to one side, Double A is a common sight on Mar Mikhael’s main street. With more flair than most visiting DJs and never far from breaking into freestyle rap – his off-the-cuff verse is second to none – he considers himself quite the Beirut celebrity.

But Double A is a street child, a young teenager selling roses to the drinkers crowding the pavement, charming them with his confident swagger and easy smile. While he’s peddled flowers across most of Beirut, he likes it best here – he’s part of the furniture. But Double A’s not alone in working the sidewalk, and unfortunately for the kids darting between the clusters of hipsters and high heels, life isn’t all fist pumps and high fives.

Abed is eleven but his face looks much older. He flinches as a red 4×4 drives by, “That’s the police”, he whispers, constantly twitching to glance nervously up and down the street. “How do you know?” we ask him, “The way they look.”

Abed was just seven when his mother packed him a bag and put him on the bus from Aleppo to live with his uncle in Jounieh. He doesn’t like to talk about home, there’s only one reason why he left: ‘el ḥarb’, the war. One of his brothers fights for Assad, the other against him.

Abed doesn’t smile. While the other street boys tease and play fight with each other, Abed just watches silently. His blank face and dull eyes only brighten once. As we talk to him about life away from the street we mention computer games. At the first mention of Need for Speed his eyes light up and a smile flashes across his face, just for a moment. As quickly as it came, the smirk vanishes. While Double A was happy to chat, Abed wants to get going, the night is getting on, he needs to sell some more flowers.

Yousef is from Aleppo too. At 15, the eldest of the bunch, he referees the squabbles between his brothers selling gum alongside him, but he’s also there to work. Crouched in an alleyway near Chaplin’s, away from the prying eyes and ears of the main street, Yousef begins to tell us his story. Back in Syria, considered old enough to take up a rifle and fight in the war, his reluctance to join the rebels was met with accusations of being ‘shabiha’, loyal to the regime. “How could I fight? My father had an aneurism, my mother collects scrap metal all day, how could I let my brothers starve?” Soon after, he came to Lebanon.

His cousin was not so lucky. After leaving his wife and young child in the relative safety of Beirut, he returned to Aleppo, where he used to work as a decorator to make enough money to send to his family in Turkey. After several months he decided to leave for the Turkish border. After the regime, Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Al-Nusra checkpoints he was stopped by ISIS. Although a Sunni Turkman, his Shiite surname, Ali, was enough to condemn him. It wasn’t until weeks later that Yousef heard of his cousin’s execution. On Facebook. A gruesome video showed him buried up to his neck and then beheaded in front of a crowd of locals. Liked and shared, going viral.

Faced with that, any existence on the streets of Beirut was still a better alternative. But as tempting, as easy as it is to pity children like Abed, they aren’t all pawns, exploited by gangs or abusive relations, wayward parents or opportunistic pimps. Yes, their situation is more tragic than we can imagine, but Abed and his street brothers deserve more than pity.

Streets of Gold

While the weight of numbers of children roaming Beirut’s streets is living testament to how utterly the international community has failed the people of Syria, in a horrible twist of irony, the Beirut street has become their battleground back to normality.

Talking to these kids had originally been all about lifting the lid on the infrastructure of gangs rumoured to be the masterminds behind the street kids outside Radio, the shadowy gangs supposedly pushing children outside Abbey Road. In fact, their stories exposed only the awful reality of poverty, not the total breakdown of humanity that we like to believe shadows destitution.

Abed works most nights in Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael. Like Yousef and his brothers, dropped off by their taxi driver uncle at 8pm, they work until 2am. On a good night they make more than seventy thousand Lebanese Lira. Every night Yousef’s brothers pay their uncle twenty thousand for transport, the fare from Jounieh. As much as he would drive them for free, the taxi boss won’t let him.

Of every thirty dollars that Yousef makes, twenty five goes to his family – they’re saving up for flights to Turkey. Unsure of how best to buy their tickets, they opt to use a middleman – although he charges them far more than the going rate.

Abed too works to provide for his family. Asked why he spends his nights on the street, he says simply, “my mother needs the money. Who else will send it?” Every month he wires a little cash back to Aleppo, but it gives him little pride. To 11 year old Abed it seems just a hard fact of life, an adult fact of life.

The stories behind the nameless, faceless children of Beirut’s pavements and junctions are often what makes them that bit more human to us, but ultimately to the 11 year old selling flowers, these stories are often just as valuable as his small hands pawing the air.

Gino and I spent hours talking to the small clique of boys manning the Mar Mikhael pavement. As much as we hoped that we had scratched beyond the surface of sob stories and rehearsed lines, we could never really know.

The First Casualty of War

But the boys don’t enjoy a monopoly over the area. One old man, Mahmoud, his head crowned with strands of neatly combed hair, his shirt pressed and his fraying pullover freshly cleaned, also treads the same streets, a vase of gaudy blue flowers in hand.

As we were talking to the boys, he approached. “They speak all lie” was all his broken English could muster, but later that night we saw him again. Every evening he sees the troupe of ‘lost boys’; he doesn’t trust a word they say. He had stories of women taking street boys on tours around the city, paying them for their time and sexual abuse, but he viewed the boys’ parents as the real villains, happy to watch as their kids peddled the pavements. Plenty of resentment was left for the kids themselves. “They can earn twice as much as me. I struggle to make forty thousand at best. Syrians came and occupied our land before – now they come back to steal it all again.”

Mirror Image

Be it the fast cars prowling the streets, the skeletal towers remoulding the skyline or the soldiers idling behind the barbed wire – enacting their own theatre of security – in Beirut, image is king. Being seen matters.

Chatting to street kids isn’t how I usually spend my evenings but I never expected to be stopped talking to one by a customer of one of Mar Mikhael’s many bars. He was perfectly friendly, asking where I was from and if we knew any of the same foreigners in Beirut. But he must have sensed I was keen to carry on talking to Double A, “you know you don’t have to speak to them, sure be polite, but don’t waste your time with them, they should be cleaned up”. While they are just as much a part of today’s Lebanon, it seems that plenty of Lebanese view Syrian street kids as an unfortunate blemish on the city’s image, a poor reflection of their beloved Beirut.

For the city’s businesses, such attitudes are all the more acute. Hamra is another hub for street kids, but there the streets have struck back. Pressure from local traders has pushed the police into sporadic campaigns of arrests and imprisonment of any street children they find. Chatting to Mohamad Salam, a spokesperson for the Hamra Traders Association, he made their view clear. “We have many big trademarks here in Hamra. It affects their image when there are beggars. Because of this we are not able to create new investment in Hamra. As an investor, a business, you don’t care about them – just take them out from in front of my shop”. For Hamra’s business owners, frustrated at the lack of government effort to solve the issue, the only problem is “that we don’t have enough room to put them all in jail.” For traders, it’s not personal, it’s simply business.

15 year old Yousef has seen the other end of the law. After his last arrest, his fifth, he spent four months in a local adult holding cell under a motorway, crushed in with dozens of men, surviving on two meager meals and occasionally some food from his parents. When he got to court the judge released him immediately, as soon as he heard he was supporting his family. Days later he was back on the street. Mohamad Salam knows that arrests are futile, “It’s a vicious circle, first of all we should provide shelter for them, alternatives. We have been criticised by NGOs for our brutal approach but you know, our aim is business”.

A Helping Hand

But while some locals would prefer to ignore street children, NGOs have been working to make their plight more visible and better understood. Brady Black, a representative of Home of Hope, said that the organisation currently houses its maximum capacity of 70 street children, taking them off the street or away from abuse at home. However, funded by the Lebanese government makes them slaves to court decisions, forced to return children even if they know it is only further abuse or exploitation that awaits them. Sources in the police’s intelligence department told us that crackdowns on street children were largely the responsibility of local officers and stations, pressured as they are by local business and residents. At Home of Hope, it is not uncommon to receive up to 12 children from the police at any one time, surely evidence of roundups on the street. For Brady one thing stood out, “their parents don’t come and pick them up, I can’t understand it personally, but for them it’s a rational decision, it’s willful abandonment.”

While charities like Home of Hope do their best, in reality they are only a drop in the ocean of what’s needed to bring some normalcy back to the lives of the children on Beirut’s streets. Working by roads, in the gutter, these kids are easy to brand as delinquent, somehow lacking in morals. But amongst those I talked to, honour is everything. Last week Yousef found a new iPhone outside a bar. He kept it safe until finally the owner called. The owner didn’t think to give him a reward. Had he thought about selling it? “No, of course not. That would be haram.”

Life might not be fair, but for the children of Beirut’s streets, the phrase takes on a whole new meaning.

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