Ext. The shoeshine boy – Day
On the morning of 7 March I was sitting at a café in Beirut’s renowned Hamra Street, sipping coffee and browsing through the headlines of the newspapers to follow the latest in Lebanese politics, when a special report caught my eye. It was about the latest international statistics on child labour; Lebanon featured among the countries with the highest incidences of child labour, especially with respect to Syrian refugee children who had fled their war-torn country.
Suddenly I heard the sound of young boys brawling and rushed to put a stop to the fight. Three Syrian boys were squabbling; one of them demanded that the others give him back the 2,000 Lebanese pounds (about USD1.3) he had lent them to buy breakfast. The boy said he desperately needed the money because he was in charge of his family who had come to Beirut from Syria and were living in a refugee camp.
I asked them to tell me their stories. “I came to Lebanon with my family to escape the Syrian war,” said nine-year-old Ahmed, an olive-skinned boy with a haircut styled after Football star Christiano Ronaldo. “We used to live in the Aleppo countryside; I went to school there.” His family consisted of his mother, father and three sisters. His father used to work as a porter but now was unable to work because of a knee injury he sustained following a shooting incident back home. “So I now work as a shoeshine boy in Hamra Street to provide for my family and help overcome the difficult living conditions,” Ahmed said.
The stories of Zuhair and Muhammad were not much different from Ahmed’s; they too had fled the hell of the Syrian civil war. Zuhair was an angel-faced 10-year-old who said he lived with his uncle in one of Beirut’s more populous neighbourhoods. They pay a monthly rent of USD400 for their two-bedroom apartment, and Zuhair must therefore work to help with the expenses. Most of his relatives refused to leave their homeland and decided to remain in Syria whatever fate brought.
Muhammad was a witty boy with a charming smile. He also came to Beirut after war broke out in Syria and the price of goods rose dramatically, making living conditions there intolerable. He and his brothers are forced to work to help their father in his daily struggle to support the family.
The three young boys told their stories in the most natural way, which suggested they were growing up too soon. “Before the war, a packet of bread in Syria cost 15 Syrian pounds, but now the same packet costs SL200,” Zuhair went on. “There is a shortage of basic food commodities. Here in Lebanon we don’t have enough humanitarian aid; the aid given to us by UN relief organisations consists of a ration card which allows us to receive a monthly USD20-worth of goods. To get this card we have to go a long way from where we live to the offices of these organisations.”
After this short encounter, we all agreed to meet again.
Ext. From homeland hell to police pursuit – Night
I met Ahmed again; he took me for a walk along the street of Hamra. We reached a quiet area where we met the other boys at the entrance of a high-rise building, which they told me was the headquarters of a private company where Muhammad and Zuhair polished the shoes of the company’s employees. I again sat with the group and we were joined by Muhammad’s youngest brother, six-year-old Mu’ayed, who had a glowing smile. They introduced me to another boy who also carried a shoeshine kit. His name was Ahmed, and he had a mellow voice and wide green eyes that reflected his tender age. I could hardly believe the misery that this child told me and my heart ached with grief as I imagined the ordeal that these vulnerable children had to go through.
Ahmed came to Beirut with his elder brother after a number of unfortunate incidents befell their family in Syria, resulting in the death and injury of many of his family members. Those who were not killed by barrel bombs, he said, were killed in suicide bombings. Although Ahmed was a good ninth grade student who hoped to become a doctor, he was forced to change the course of his life to struggle for survival. He lived with his 17-year old brother in an apartment they rented for USD500 a month, and always had to flee the constant pursuit of the Lebanese police because they did not have the necessary permits to work in Lebanon. Every time they were caught their work kits were confiscated and they had to pay LBP50,000 (USD35) for new tools just to work and earn the small amount of money that allowed them to pay for their living expenses and rent.
Ahmed and his brother, however, were not only pursued by the police, but also by thugs and criminals who often attacked them to steal the small amount of money they managed to earn. They always tried to leave the streets where they worked before nightfall so that these criminals would not rob them of the few pennies they worked so hard for and on which their family so desperately depended.
As I was talking to them, their faces suddenly brightened and they all gave their biggest smile as an elegant lady passed and greeted them kindly. They told me that this lady, who is of Syrian origin and had been living in Beirut for many years, often helped them with generous sums of money.
We were again interrupted, this time by a young man on a motorcycle who stopped beside us. Zuhair rushed to him with his shoeshine kit and cleaned his shoes so well that they looked new.
I chatted with the children about their dreams for the future; they all said they wanted to return to their homes and pursue their education to become doctors and engineers and help rebuild their country. I took a selfie with them in which they smiled straight from the heart. I will never forget these smiles for as long as I live, because they are like the mist that revives beautiful roses about to fade.
My encounter with these boys reminded me of Aylan, the Syrian baby who drowned off the Turkish shore during his family’s attempt to escape to Europe. The waves were harsher to them than the war itself. I felt that the children of Syria were lying quite literally between the devil and the deep blue sea. Either they faced the grim fate of death or relinquished their childhood innocence to work and support their families. They must do this in the Lebanese society, which is already suffering from tough economic conditions and price increases. If the situation is often hostile to the Lebanese people themselves, how can the Syrian refugees thrive there?
Int. Where did Aly go? – Night
I returned to my hotel late at night to record everything that the young boys had told me. I took a trip down memory lane to one of my previous trips to Lebanon in December 2014, when I met Aly who lived with his Syrian family in an illegal refugee camp in the Southern Lebanese city of Tyre. I had visited the Syrian refugees who lived in that camp and listened to stories about their ordeals, and how they had to leave their farmlands and private homes to escape their war-ravaged country and seek security on Lebanese soil.
Aly was a little boy who caught everyone’s attention with his joyful laugh and his joking around with representatives of the international relief organisations. However, I could not forget the shadow of worry that crossed his face as if he had doubts about his future. This made me wonder about what happened to him. Did he settle somewhere with his family? Did they try to flee to Europe in search of a better future? Did they manage to cross the border into another country? Or were they detained by the border guards? Are they still living in their dilapidated tent where the rent, I heard, had increased to USD200 per month? What did fate have in store for them?
I contacted a few refugee relief agencies to ask about Aly’s family and eventually discovered that they had left the camp for an unknown destination.
Ext. Ongoing incompetence – Day
I recently read the report “No Place for Children” issued by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which reveals heartbreaking facts about the conflict in Syria. Since 2011, the Syrian war has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians, created millions of refugees—among whom 2.4 million are children, and resulted in the recruitment of children as fighters, some of them no older than seven. The report also states that more than eight million children in Syria and neighbouring countries are in dire need of humanitarian aid while the international Syria Response Plan has a financing shortage.
Some important facts in the report caught my attention, most important of which was that more than 151,000 Syrian children were born outside Syria in countries where Syrians have sought refuge, with 70,000 born in Lebanon alone. There are also 2.8 million Syrian children inside Syria and in neighbouring countries who have not enrolled in schools.
I wrote down these remarks in the hope that I would publish them in a comprehensive article covering the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis and the suffering of the Syrian people, who are paying a hefty price for the game of international politics being played in their homeland while the international community turns a blind eye to their ordeals.
Will the sun rise again?
It was by mere coincidence that I found myself captured by the Syrian refugee dilemma just as I was reading the novel Nozouh Mariam (Mariam’s Journey) by Syrian writer Mahmoud Hasan al-Jasim, which has been nominated for the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction long list (the Arab equivalent of the Booker Prize). The novel tells the trials of a Syrian family who fled the hell of the Syrian war to Turkey, then tried to escape to Europe amid unimaginable suffering. The pain and anguish that the family in the novel had to endure is a mere drop in the ocean of real horrors endured by the Syrian people. It is one of those cases when reality surpasses fiction. However, I try to hold on to the dimmest rays of hope and quote the words spoken by Sarah, the protagonist, to her little daughter: “I left you the house keys… You will be back, Mariam, you will shower with the country’s jasmines to wash away the humiliation of displacement and confusion, so that your beauty lights up the whole world!”
The curtain falls on the theatre of my weary heart as I repeat these optimistic words to myself; words that voice my heartfelt hopes to anyone whose dreams have been dashed by war; words that ease the pain but don’t heal the open wounds. Because wounds will remain open as long as wars are fought. So please, put an end to the war.
Plight of the Syrians in Lebanon
For Lebanon, a country whose population is little more than 4.5 million, the 1.5 million Syrian refugees constitute an almost intolerable addition. It is understandable then why Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas should describe the Syrian refugee influx into Lebanon as “catastrophic”. Many of the 1.5 million are not registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The World Bank places Lebanon’s losses on account of the Syrian refugee crisis at more than USD7.5 billion over the past 18 months, and the Lebanese government announced that unemployment has reached a record 14 per cent, again owing to the influx of Syrian workers into the Lebanese market.
In an effort to stem the tide of Syrians entering Lebanon, the Lebanese government has since January 2015 been imposing more strict visa conditions for Syrians. Before that date, Syrians were granted visas which automatically guaranteed a six-month stay in Lebanon. Limited-duration visas are granted for tourists, students, transit, medical treatment, or business; provided all required documents are submitted. Outside these reasons, a Syrian can only enter Lebanon legally through a Lebanese sponsor, and the visa has to be renewed every six months upon payment of the required USD200 fees for all aged 15 years or more.
According to Human Rights Watch, many Syrian refugees cannot afford the renewal fee, which leaves them at the mercy of their Lebanese sponsors, many of whom take advantage of the situation by extorting money out of the Syrians.
According to UNHCR in Lebanon, 70 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the poverty line and depend on donations to survive.
Lebanon is not among the signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocols. Accordingly, Lebanon does not provide the benefits to which refugees are eligible according to the law. All refugee entry and residency procedures depend on local laws and regulations.
None of this takes into account those Syrians who simply cross the border between Syria and Lebanon on foot and remain in Lebanon illegally. These people are usually very poor and end up with menial jobs and living in squalid conditions.
20 April 2016