In Lebanon, few services for street children

JBEIL, Lebanon, June 3 -- Two small children sat under a tree near a Dunkin Donuts shopt in Jbeil, one of Lebanon's most ancient cities.

A blonde, middle-aged woman noticed the children as she walked toward her scratched BMW. She motioned for them to come to her. When Saad Shebely and Tamer Shebely approached the woman, they held out plastic bags filled with DVDs.

The woman reached into Tamer's bag, rooted around and pulled out three discs. She paid the boy, then left.

Tamer Shebely said he stopped attending school when he was 6 years old. He went to work, he said, because his father suffered from heart problems and wasn't able to support the family, which moved from Syria to Tripoli, a seaside city north of Beirut.

Tamer said he used to sell flowers, but that didn't bring in enough money.

"So I decided to sell DVDs," he said.

Lebanon's sidewalks and streets have long been workplaces for children. Now, advocates say even more children are likely to flood into Lebanon from neighboring countries as the region experiences instability due to anti-government revolts.

Many street children are from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and other countries, said Jean Otter of Home of Hope, which assists the children.

It's impossible to know how many more children will come to Lebanon to escape the violent uprisings in the region, or how many children work in Lebanon's streets now, said Ziad Chalhoub, a lawyer who helped draft legislation to aid street children.

But it's clear that child labor has been a big problem in Lebanon. The United Nations, the U.S. Department of Labor and other organizations and governments have said that many children in Lebanon are at risk of being exploited.

Because Lebanon’s borders are somewhat porous, it is very easy for children and their families to cross for as little as $100, Chalhoub said.

Once the families are in Lebanon, it's common for children to be separated from their parents, one Ministry of Social Affairs official said, on condition of anonymity. Parents are sometimes caught by the police, and if children run while their parents are detained, they often wind up selling flowers, DVDs or sorting garbage to earn money.

Often, networks of beggars take advantage of these orphans, added the ministry source. In this situation, the children are transported in a van and placed on strategic points such as major traffic lights in Beirut.

Usually, someone is nearby, watching children as they beg or sell products, Chalhoub said.

Just as the problem is growing, Otter said, government funding to help the children is dwindling. Home of Hope has served about 3,000 children since it was founded in 1999, he said, and relied on government funding until 2003. Since then, he said, his "skeleton budget" has been based on private donations.

"We have to cut on everything, but we do not compromise health and food," Otter said.

Home of Hope is small. The paint on the wall is peeling, and the furniture is old. A musty stench is pervasive. In a small classroom, children ages 3 to 12 squint because of lack of light.

The children at Home of Hope have been forced to sacrifice, Otter said. They shower every two days, and children's heads are often shaved to cut down on lice.

Organizations like Home of Hope are few and far between in Lebanon, but a few efforts are underway to help the children. The Committee for Street Children aims to create a coalition among the Ministry of Social Affairs, Education and Health and several non-profit organizations to establish a concrete plan of action to help street children, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The committee hopes to first press for modification of several federal laws. For example, Lebanese law forbids government intervention if a child lives with his parents and is not in immediate danger. The committee hopes to get that law revised to allow greater intervention, earlier. The committee also hopes to ensure that every child is afforded the rights guaranteed under the 1993 Charter of the Rights of the Child, including shelter, food, access to medical care and education, and protection from exploitation, Chalhoub said.

The legislation was proposed last year, Chalhoub said, but since the Lebanese government infrastructure crumbled, it is "frozen, waiting quietly in a desk drawer."

While many of the children working on the streets are from neighboring countries, some are Lebanese whose parents failed to register as citizens, one government source said.

This is the case of Nemer, a 13-year-old DVD vendor in Jbeil. Nemer said he has 12 siblings.

"I work for myself because I need to earn money," he said.

Like the dozens of other children selling DVD's in the area, Nemer wears a one-shouldered khaki canvas bag that is cracked at the corners because of the weight of the DVDs inside. Nemer frequently shifts the bag from shoulder to shoulder, damaging his orange and blue sweater.

Every day, Nemer said, he stops in Tripoli to buy DVDs for LL500 (about 30 cents) each. He resells them in Jbeil for LL2,000 (about $1.30). He has to sell at least eight DVDs to pay for his transportation, he said.

Many street children are unprotected and suffer abuse, Otter said. Tamer said he fears young Lebanese men who make fun of him and other kids. Two men stole his DVD's and money several times, Tamer said.

Nemer said he has the same problem, but he's more afraid of the policemen who can become violent.

"It is true that from time to time, some policemen abuse their authorities and beat children," one police sergeant said on condition of anonymity.

Once, a child was so afraid of a policeman that he tried to run across a highway in a panic, the sergeant said. The child was hit by a car and died.

Constant violence and exclusion leaves negative effects on the children, according to a study by researchers at the University of St. Joseph. The children are ignored by the government, deprived of basic rights, denied healthcare and excluded both economically and socially, according to the report.

Many children suffer from neglect and violence at home and on the street, Otter said. When they arrive at Home of Hope, many suffer from skin problems and malnutrition.

In one case, Otter said, one child's stepfather hung him on a wall and burned his feet with an iron every day. The child was in a hospital for seven months, Otter said.

With continued political uprisings in the Arab region, more and more children are likely to come work in Lebanon's streets, Chalhoub said. Without secure border protection, children cross into Lebanon easily. And without an active government to enforce their protection, the children will likely to be abused, he said.

“We should not encourage children’s employers," Otter said. "When you see a street kid, do not give him money. Buy him something to eat."