Abdullah lives like no eight year-old-boy should. Two years ago, the youngster from Raqqa, a town in the north of Syria on the banks of the River Euphrates, travelled to Lebanon with his three brothers, looking for work.
Today, Abdullah lives with around 20 other workers in a ramshackle encampment on a patch of wasteland in Lailaki, a poor suburb of south Beirut.
By night, the boy picks through the city’s rubbish, hoping to find objects of value.
By day, instead of going to school, Abdullah sorts through his discoveries with his “boss”, an aggressive middle-aged woman who claims to own the camp and who, Abdullah says, beats the children if they do not make her enough money.
A few hours sleep in a filthy, cramped tent with no heat or running water and a bowl of rice is his reward.
“My family sent me here to work and now I haven’t seen them for so long,” said Abdullah, his hands rough from manual labour.
Photo: Hamza Haj Hassan/IRIN
"I do hope for a better life. But I’m stuck here. Even if I could leave I would be lost."
It is illegal for children under the age of 14 to work in Lebanon, as it is for unsupervised children to beg or sell on the streets. Yet the Ministry of Social Affairs estimates that there are around 100,000 under-14s doing manual labour in the country, while some 20,000 Lebanese children live in alternative care because their families are too poor to support them.
Street children, most of whom are from neighbouring Arab countries and so cannot avail of public services, number from 3-5,000, according to estimates by local activists.
“I do hope for a better life,” said Abdullah, who was dirty and appeared malnourished and in need of medical attention. “But I’m stuck here. Even if I could leave I would be lost.”
Nichole Ireland, spokesperson for the UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF), said: “Living in these conditions is a violation of a child’s rights. Children have a right to go to school, to be cared for and to live in safe and healthy conditions.”
“No-one out there actively searching out street kids”
Though the social affairs ministry and several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) run projects to protect and rehabilitate street children or those forced into labour, Lebanon lacks a dedicated body to crack down on such abuses, meaning children must be arrested by the regular police before they can enter the social services network.
“There’s no-one out there actively searching out street kids,” John Eter, director of the Home of Hope orphanage in Kahale, on the mountains east of Beirut, told IRIN.
Photo: Hugh Macleod/IRIN
"Ziad got me selling marijuana, then cocaine and heroin. I started smoking marijuana and when I was stoned Ziad used to sell me to men for sex."
Alaa Abdel Karim al-Bouz, 21, is the oldest resident in the Home of Hope orphanage. Read his story...
“We have been suggesting this to the government for four years. Children should get the highest priority in times of crisis. But with all the troubles happening, it seems the security forces are not ready for reform.”
Lebanon is locked in an eight-month old political standoff between the government and the Hezbollah-led opposition that resigned from the cabinet, while in the north the army continues its struggle to defeat Fatah al-Islam militants holed up in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.
Eter estimated Lebanon has as many as 5,000 street children, 80 percent of them foreigners mainly from Syria, Jordan, Iraq or the Palestinian territories, who carry no identification papers and who therefore cannot attend state school and can be arrested any time.
Activists say the government has resisted calls to give official IDs to street children without papers because they fear it would encourage more parents to abandon their children in Lebanon.
Orphanage lacks funds
Eter opened the Home of Hope orphanage, run through contributions to the Lebanese Evangelical Society (LES), in 1999.
The centre has accommodation for up to 150 boys and girls of any age - usually up to 18 - who sleep in dormitories, take three meals a day, play sports and receive schooling and counseling, including check-ups by a psychologist.
“These children are brought up in homes where it is normal for them to be beaten or even raped. Some have advanced drug addiction. We have a psychologist always here, but the best therapy for kids is other kids,” said Eter.
However, the Home of Hope is facing a drastic funding crisis. Eter said that since 2004 the government had reduced its support to the centre by 80 percent, meaning the budget of around US$500,000 has shrunk to around $30,000, just enough to feed and clothe the 64 children currently resident.
Photo: Hugh Macleod/IRIN
|Since 1999, the Lebanese Evangelical Society (LES) has run an orphanage in Kahale, in the mountains east of Beirut, which has been a place of sanctuary for hundreds of abandoned street children|
Two thirds of the teaching and support staff have already been laid off, with the remainder receiving letters announcing their dismissal by the end of August, when Eter said the centre would have to close in the absence of extra funds.
“I have made many appeals for money from the British and French embassies and from the European Union and USAID [US Agency for International Development], but they are not interested because the kids are not Lebanese. There is money for political activities but not for humanitarian,” said Eter.
Minister of Social Affairs Naila Mouawad, who herself runs a foundation which helps working children in Tripoli, north Lebanon, told IRIN that the Home of Hope had been awarded $200,000 from the government this year, but that payment had been severely delayed by the ongoing political deadlock.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions