The Syrian beggars of Beirut’s Hamra district
In Beirut's trendy Hamra district the streets are a hive of activity with beggars, mostly from Syria
The boy walked over to me, his bare feet apparent on the cold, dirty pavement. His hand was held out as he mumbled to me in Arabic, gesturing to his mouth with his hand in that universal motion telling me he wanted food.
I was standing on the main street in the Hamra district of Beirut late on a Monday morning. I had just walked past a Starbucks, where middle-class Lebanese and tourists were sipping coffee and eating pastries and muffins.
In an almost cruel sense of irony, where the barefooted boy was standing, across the road was a Converse shop selling fashionable footwear. The streets are narrow, lined with old dirty buildings and well-known brands. The traffic moves slowly and randomly, horns sounding almost constantly.
It is not a calming environment for anyone to be in, not least a tiny child trying to sleep under a thin blanket. My encounter with the shoeless boy was only moments after I had been confronted by two girls, no older than about seven, who tried to sell me single red roses.
“Are you from Syria?” I asked one of them. “Yes, Syria,” came the reply, before she demanded money and made the hand gesture for food. “Where is your mama?” I asked. She said her mother was sleeping, before again asking for money.
Minutes later, I was followed down the same road by a girl who could not have been older than four. She was speaking to me as she swang a carrier bag, likely trying to sell me something.
Suddenly she gave up on me as we came to a shoe shop. Inside I noticed two young shop assistants, a man and woman. They smiled affectionately at the girl. The young woman stroked her face like a kind older sister.
I stopped and asked them about these children. “It’s heart-breaking,” the man said. “The little girl and her family have been here for the last three to four years - they’re Syrian.”
It is winter in Lebanon and it has been raining. The air has a cold, damp chill about it. “It was raining the other day,” the man told me. “The little girl was shivering really badly. We felt so bad for her that my boss bought her a hat to keep her warm.”
He said there had been Syrians begging around Hamra since the situation in Syria worsened about four years ago.
Lebanon’s population of about 4 million is said to have increased by about 25 percent since the war in Syria broke out. Lebanon is struggling to cope.
There is a visible presence of poverty on the streets, but it is difficult to gauge if these are genuine people in need or, as some suggest, opportunists who have realized they can raise enough money to get by through begging.
It is not unheard of in other countries for young children to be put on the streets by unscrupulous adults to sell trinkets and flowers, or simply beg.
“In the beginning, it was apparent that there were a lot of people in need,” a man working in a pharmacy told me. “But four years on, it’s hard to believe that these people still need to beg.”
A Lebanese man standing in the street was arguing with a Syrian woman. I asked him why he was angry. He said the woman was begging on the street, implying it was bad for business.
Camille, a 32-year-old security guard, told me: “You have the beggars on the street, people just get frustrated with them. But then you have the Syrians who have come here and are working mostly illegally for $200 a month - a Lebanese man would expect $800 for the same job. They are pricing us out of the market.”
He added: “Unemployment is already bad here. I graduated nine years ago with a degree in banking and finance - I’ve been a security guard ever since.” Resentment in Beirut is growing.
Walking a short way from the main street, I found myself in an area where there are a number of hospitals and clinics. On the streets were even more children and women begging.
This is the district where Syrian father Abdul Halim al-Attar was pictured last year selling pens, while he held his daughter as she slept on his shoulder. Thanks to a crowd-funding appeal, he was soon able to get off the streets and set up a network of cafes.
As I left Hamra and headed back to my hotel, my attention was caught by two children I assumed were brother and sister, probably about seven years old. The boy was crying, his shoes off his feet. The girl was teasing him, but in a gentle way that a sibling would, as she tried to put his shoes back on.
He kicked them across the pavement into the path of a man who stepped over them. The girl patiently got back up, picked up the shoes, sniffed them and laughed. She knelt back down and tried to fasten the velcro strap around the boy’s foot. Gradually, a glimmer of a smile appeared on the boy’s face.