#18 cities
Sam Tarling

Mean Streets

Syrian refugee children sell roses or collect scrap metal on the streets of Beirut. They sacrifice their futures to ensure their families' survival.

Syrian refugee street kid Amal

The first time I met Amal, she was just six years old and selling chewing gum to the few people still out on Beirut’s Hamra Street late on a Monday night back in April 2014. She danced between potential customers hoping to make what she said was her daily quota of 10,000 Lebanese pounds, just under $7. It was hard to get much information out of Amal that day – she seemed wired, traumatised, and unwilling to talk. Her sisters told us that they were refugees from Damascus and that if they did not make their 10,000 Lira each, they would not be allowed home that night.

Syrian refugee street kid 12-year-old Eli

There are over one million Syrian refugees officially registered in Lebanon, though many NGOs put the number at closer to two million. Around half are children. 12-year-old Eli from Der Ezzour is one of the many young refugees in Beirut who earn money by scavenging for scrap metal and other recyclable materials.

Syrian refugee street kids

Of the 312,000 Syrian refugees the UNHCR estimates live in Beirut, most have apartments. Before Lebanon effectively closed its borders to Syrian refugees in January 2015, new arrivals to Beirut would often live underneath the bridge at one of the city’s biggest bus stations until they found a place to stay. Such as this family, who didn’t want their name published for fear of retribution from the Syrian government.

Syrian refugee street kids

Refugees wait at a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) reception centre in Beirut. Although the UN and a host of international charities are working to support Syrian refugees in Lebanon, restrictions placed by the Lebanese government and a shortage of funds means that the support offered is far from adequate.

Syrian refugee street kids 12-year-old Khaled

12-year-old Khaled, whose family fled their home in Idlib after his father was killed, walks back to the bus station he says he usually sleeps in after begging in Beirut’s eastern bar districts.

Syrian refugee street kids

The majority of refugees live outside the capital in informal rural settlements like this one in the central Bekaa Valley. They live in shacks and tents usually made from old advertising hoardings, which are cold and wet in the winter, dusty and hot in the summer. The Lebanese government forbids refugees from creating permanent structures for fear the huge population influx will become a permanent fixture in a country with an already heavily overburdened infrastructure and alter Lebanon’s fragile sectarian balance.

Syrian refugee street kid Nirmeen

Nirmeen has been selling flowers on Beirut’s Corniche since before the war in Syria began. Her family left Syria five years ago, but are now unable to return. A spirited sales woman despite her age, Nirmeen said she had to make 50,000 Lebanese pounds a day ($33) to help support her family, who live in the Sabra refugee camp in Beirut. She starts work at four pm most days and stays out until her roses are sold, usually the early hours of the morning. Listening to Nirmeen's skilled patter with couples out for a romantic stroll and tourists enjoying the view, it is clear that she would make a formidable entrepreneur given the opportunity. But for kids like her, opportunity is a rare thing.

Syrian refugee street kid Amal

One year on and a calmer, more confident Amal and her sisters are now regular fixtures outside the bars in eastern Beirut. Her daily quota has doubled, but roses fetch more than chewing gum. Only the younger kids and a few elderly men sell chewing gum, relying on punters’ pity as much as anything else. At seven, Amal has a few years of this kind of work left, but it’s haunting to dwell on what lies ahead for her.

Photos by Sam Tarling.

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