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I confess to having recently purchased four children near Ramlet el Baida beach from a stressed-out Syrian woman. I am not sure if she was what she said or if she was a member of one of the human trafficking gangs that operate widely these days in Lebanon selling Syrian children or vulnerable adult women. The vendor-woman claimed to have been a neighbor of the four children in Aleppo and that they lost their parents in the war. They appear in the photo above, sitting on this observer’s motorbike a few days after the sale: two five year old twin girls, a boy about one year and several months, and his eight-year old bigger brother.
She and the children had ended up in Lebanon but she explained to me that she was afraid to register with the UNHCR because she is an illegal and has no ID. The woman told me that she could no longer take care of the shivering children but did not want to just leave them on the street. She would give them all to me for $ 1000 (or I could pick and choose from among the siblings at $ 250 each).
Completely shocked, I started to get on my motorbike and said disgustingly: “Khalas!” [enough!], and looked around for a police car. I looked backed over my shoulder and saw that the children were very frightened, soaked from the rain, very cold and apparently very hungry. Without thinking, I instantly offered the seller $600 for all four brothers and sisters and she took it, saying she was going to Turkey and would try to get to Lesbos Island, off Greece.
The lady gave me ten minutes to go to an ATM and get the $600 cash. She demanded dollars and not Lebanese currency. The children seemed to understand what was happening and their eyes fixated on me.
What kept racing through my mind as I mounted my motorbike and searched for an ATM was the expressions on the faces of these angels as their ‘caregiver’ bargained their fate.
Also, I was acutely mindful of statistics well-known around here these days. Nearly 14 million people in Syria are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. More than half of these are children who are at risk of becoming ill from malnourishment or are being abused and exploited. Most of us here know many horror stories from all over Syria. In the villages just an hour’s drive from the Lebanese border, such as Madaya and Zabadani, children suffering a particularly vicious siege were forced to survive on animal feed and soup made of whatever weeds could be found. We read the media reports that more than 20 died of starvation during 2015 and a dozen more reported cases of babies dying because their mothers were too ill and weak to produce milk for them, or if there was a local clinic, it lacked baby formula or ran out of infant IV’s. In Moadamiyeh, just a few miles from the capital Damascus, three newborn babies died last month after medical staff ran out of IV bags.
I thought about the scale of exploitation faced by Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, of the tens of thousands sleeping rough through these frigid nights and the countless thousands who every day are easy prey for abuse. I thought about the fact that Refugee relief efforts in Lebanon are chronically underfunded and that even UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) has been forced to cut aid to all but the neediest of refugees due to insufficient funds.
I thought of that recent Save the Children report survey showing that more than a third of the 126 residents they interviewed reported that their children often go without a single meal a day and a quarter of them have seen children in their towns dying because of lack of food.
I thought about the intense, vicious anti-refugee harangues from some Lebanese politicians that Syrian refugees pose a threat to the country’s security and economic stability, even though the menial jobs they do find are not likely to replace many Lebanese workers, if any at all. Many fear-mongering Lebanese politicians make even The Donald appear compassionate in comparison.
I thought about the Syrian children I see daily begging as they wander Beirut’s streets selling chewing gum, flowers, or shining shoes. And I thought about the 11 and 12 year old girls. I have come to be acquainted with some of them from my visits to the beach where I like to go for a break and stare into the Mediterranean and just think about life and talk to those antisocial fiddler-crabs who pop up from their homes along the beach, grab something and then disappear quick.
These beautiful innocent children skip along or pace the Ramlet el Baida corniche waiting for cars with blackened windows to pull up. And cars do stop, regularly. Then the pedophiles molest the children for a few dollars before pulling off and disappearing into traffic. Sometimes they keep the children with them. This observer has given the local police photos of some of their license plates, but one supervisor at the Hamra police station regretted that the cops are too overwhelmed with other matters to get very involved in such cases. More than once I was given a shoulder shrug and upturned palms in reference to the case of a young girl “Leila” that I have reported more than once. One female police officer told me: “Well, at least she is earning some money for her family.”
I recently wrote some friends about the same “Leila”, a twelve year old sweetheart who worked the Ramlet el Baida beach strip. Her friends on the strip have since reported to me that “Leila” never returned from “work” last week and they have no idea what has become of her.
Approximately one half of the Syrian women with children who have been forced to flee to Lebanon have lost their husbands and often their adult sons to the war. Most of them did not have jobs outside the home before being displaced are they are now forced, besides their role of working mother, into the additional roles of father, big sister, big brother, and best friend for her children. Manar, a Palestinian social worker in Shatila camp reports that “the mothers have become their children’s everything.”
Many Syria women who are able to find work are subjected to regular sexual harassment by employers and fellow male workers. Some of them are able to deny to lecherous employers that there is no male in their household who would offer protection if she reported sexual abuse. Some less strong Syrian refugee women simply prostitute themselves for money and aid. It is estimated by a social worker at the Shatila camp that women can earn on average $36 per day as a sex worker, as compared to $8-10 for a 12-14 hour manual-labor work day.
A social worker with ABAAD, a Lebanese NGO that challenges men to stop violence against women, reports that many widowed Syrian women encourage their children to perform child labor or marry (sell) their teenage daughters off to collect the muqaddam (dowry) that the groom is supposed, but often fails, to provide to the bride’s parents.
Without legal status under Lebanese law, or without any legal papers due to Kafkaesque, nearly impossible visa renewal requirements, many women tell stories of repeated assaults, unreported to the authorities, to the few NGO’s here who may want to help. They do not report these attacks due to a lack of confidence that the police authorities would take any action, as well as fear of reprisals by the abusers or arrest for not having a valid residency permit.
Meanwhile, while desperate Syrian refugees are being denied visas, this observer, a no-account over the hill American who has ample reason to daily hang his head in shame over his country’s some dozen years of criminal wars in the region, the deaths of over a million people to which his government has contributed, and Washington’s deeply immoral policy toward Palestine, has no such problem. He is able to show up at the local police station (General Security) near the Burj al Barajneh Palestinan camp (which also houses hundreds of Syrian refugees these days), as he did this week, apply for and receive (because he is American and not Syrian) another three-year resident visa. And by paying a $65 bribe he can get it the same day, rather than wait weeks or months. There is something very wrong with this picture.
I took the children to my flat and my friend from Addis Ababa, a lovely domestic worker, herself exploited, agreed to stay at home and help care for them until we could get them some help, a proper home and the older boy, “Khaled”, enrolled in school. Over the next few hours and the next day I made several calls to get help for the children, but other than promises to return calls and ‘try to find some organization to help” nothing useful for the children came of my efforts so far. Most of my calls were never returned.
The children were well taken care of by my friend and I. They were soon cooking and eating American cuisine, including baked fudge brownies and chocolate chip cookies, as well as enjoying my country-style homemade Macaroni & Cheese, homemade banana pancakes with (fake) Aunt Jemima maple syrup from the local supermarket, and my chicken vegetable soup, not to mention some very delicious Ethiopian food which they helped my friend prepare. They also became expert at playing hide & seek and met some Syrian kids from the neighborhood. The effect of meeting fellow Syrians and hearing their accents brought these darlings sheer joy and they soon were chatting and playing like those wild chipmunks, Walt Disney’s Chip ‘n Dale.
This observer often receives emails asking for an opinion of events in the region, posing various questions or even asking for 2-cents worth of advice about academic subjects some student somewhere might be engaged in or is contemplating. To date, I have never been asked about buying Syrian refugee children in Lebanon.
If and when this observer is asked, and if the facts are similar to those I have related above near the Ramlet el Baida beach in Beirut, with four priceless sibling beauties (I am now deeply honored to be their “American uncle”), without a doubt or fear of possible legal ramifications for encouraging what some may consider a felony of sorts, I would strongly urge good Samaritans to take the following steps:
To investigate as best they can on the scene and depending on how dire the situation appears to be, especially if they judge the children to be in immediate grave danger, price bargain and “buy” the children from the trafficker on the spot. I would counsel the Samaritan to discretely photograph the seller with their smart phone. In my case, I had only a $10 used old Nokia “dumb phone” which usually does for me all that I need, I could give the police only a physical description of the woman. I still keep an eye out for her along the beach or whenever I am in Hamra.
All of us must do what we can to get these children from Syria a safe environment and a chance to play and to be children. Dear reader, if you happen to be in this area and by chance come upon a need such as this, please make these angels feel protected and safe, make them warm, get them clean clothes, feed them, get them a medical examination, contact authorities or NGO’s for help. And buy them a doll to love. Knowing you may not get immediate assistance, also inquire about schooling,
Most importantly, dear reader, find them a mother. Before long, hopefully they will be in a loving home until the hell next door ends. Then these children, the future of their country, can return home and soon help restore and eventually rebuild Syria.