Street children a new problem on Lebanon’s streets

March 19th, 2008 - 10:04 am ICT by admin  

By Weedah Hamzah
Beirut, March 19 (DPA) Street children are becoming a common sight in Beirut, some begging at traffic intersections, others wiping off dirty car windows, and others just hanging around with searching eyes that clearly show the kind of life they are living. Zeina, 10, is one of the unfortunate ones, who due to family circumstances are forced to try to sell some chewing gum before nightfall so she can return home with something to feed her sister, brother and sick mother.

Zeina, with her green eyes, taps on a car window wither dirty little hands, begging to sell her chewing gum before nightfall. “So please buy one, I have to sell them all in order to buy bread for my family,” Zeina pleads, with tears in her eyes.

The little blonde girl said she has mainly lived on the streets since she was eight to help her family survive.

“I have been begging, selling roses, chewing gum, or washing windows since I was eight,” she said. “My father left us because my mother got sick.”

Zeina is only one of thousands of children who try to eke out a living on the streets of Lebanon’s cities these days. A few of the street children are forced to beg by their parents, while the rest are victims of some notorious gangs who push them towards flesh trades and slavery.

According to Khawla Mattar of the International Labour Organization, “the number of children working on the streets is difficult to determine. Anyone who gives you a definite number would be fooling you.”

One social affairs official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the ministry plays a limited role in combating the trend.

“Our role is preventive,” the official said. “We try to mingle with the children and attract them to our centres for recreation and education, rather than leaving them on the streets where they are subject to drugs and crime.”

He added: “When street children are caught by the police and taken to police stations, our representatives work on moving them to specialised institutes.”

Although no official statistics exist on the number of street children in Lebanon, the Lebanese Evangelical Organization has more than 100 children under its protection, said the group’s head John Iter.

Iter said 15 percent of street children in Lebanon are Lebanese, while 55 percent are foreigners and the remaining 30 percent are of mixed Lebanese-foreign parentage.

The phenomenon of street children “has become one of the most important mounting social problems in Lebanon,” said Elie Mikhael, secretary general of the Higher Council for Childhood.

“According to UNICEF and the National Labour Organization, street children can be divided into two categories: those in the street still in full contact with their parents and street children who don’t have anyone and are totally dependent on themselves,” he said.

“Certain parents send their children off to work to raise money. Extreme, violent measures ranging from beatings to sexual abuse are taken (if) the child refuses to go or deliver the earnings of the day,” Mikhael said.

He added that parents’ pressure to make money was another reason for the increase in the number of street children during the hard economic times prevailing in Lebanon.

Mikhael said social organization cannot only work alone, but they need the help of the government with funds and centres in order to reduce the evolving problem.

But until a solution is found, small children like Zeina remain the sole breadwinners in their families, amid fears that one day they will fall in the hands of the wrong people.

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