As summer school holidays begin, hundreds of students from impoverished families have flocked to upper-class neighbourhoods of the capital, Amman, to eke out a living by begging near upscale coffee shops and busy traffic intersections.
Despite scorching summer heat, with temperature reaching as high as 40 degrees Celsius, boys and girls between the ages of six and 14 roam the streets looking for handouts from passers-by. Many have designated areas where others dare not trespass; some divide up the most lucrative areas – usually malls and coffee shops – among themselves.
Working the streets
Hussam, 9, is from the poor district of Ras al-Ein, located in the heart of Amman. A bright boy with a promising future, Hussam must sell chewing gum at a nearby bus station during the school year in order to help his widowed mother and three sisters get by. And he can make the equivalent of US $3 – on a good day – by selling fruit near a traffic light downtown.
During summer holidays, however, Hussam works in the up-market Abdoun district, where he begs for money at the windows of the many expensive cars that pass through the area. “These people have plenty of money to give away, and I need it,” said Hussam. “I’m not ashamed, because I’m not stealing from anybody.”
He went on to say that he often earns the equivalent of US $20 a day this way – and sometimes double that, if he works from 7am to midnight. Hussam can often be found taking naps under a tree or in the shade of an abandoned building.
Cars bearing UAE, Saudi Arabian or Kuwaiti license plates are major attractions for persistent young beggars, who know their target markets well. European tourists, diplomats and young couples, they say, are also not to be left alone. “I’ve been doing this for two years and I know who will give and who will not,” said Hussam proudly. “Young couples are guaranteed to give money, because men can never say ‘no’ if they’re sitting with a girl that they want to impress.”
Boys hardly have a monopoly on the trade. Sajida, in the sixth grade, is from Wadi Abdoun, another of the capital’s low-income areas. Her father died five years ago, her older brother is in prison and the rest of her four young siblings have joined her begging for a living. Sajida’s overriding concern is about boys who occasionally harass her or her sisters.
Despite her harsh circumstances, though, she expresses optimism for the future. “I’m not going to do this for the rest of my life,” Sajida said. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a doctor.”
The recent explosion in begging comes in the wake of a bruising couple of years for the national economy, officials say. While the kingdom desperately depends on tourism as a major source of revenue, ongoing instability in two neighbours – Iraq and Palestine – have brought the sector to its knees.
National trade has also suffered due to stiff competition from China and other Asian manufacturers, while a surge in international fuel prices recently led the government to partially lift fuel subsidies causing marked increases in living costs.
According to figures from the Ministry of Social Development, some 15 percent of Jordanians live below the poverty line, meaning that they subsist on the equivalent of US $140 a month or less. Government officials, meanwhile, note that the begging phenomenon has increased by 20 percent in the past month alone, and is expected to double in the next two months.
Social development ministry officials say they are looking into ways of tackling the problem, but admit they face an uphill battle. “We pick kids up from off the streets, but as soon as we release them, they return again,” said Mohammad Elian, a ministry inspector. “We need to raise the awareness of families to the dangers of allowing their children to beg in the streets.”
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