This observer confesses to having purchased four children near Ramlet el Baida beach recently from a stressed –out Syrian woman. I am not sure if she was as she appeared to be or was from one of human trafficking gangs which operate widely these days in Lebanon as they market Syrian children or vulnerable adult women.
The vendor woman claimed to have been the four children’s neighbor in Aleppo and that the they (two five year old twin girls, a boy about one year and a few months and his bigger brother eight years old-shown in the photo below on this observer’s motorbike a few days after he bought them) lost their parents in the war.
She and they 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, did not want to just leave them on the street and would give them all to me for $ 1000 or I could pick and choose from the sibling for $ 250 each.
Completely shocked, I started to get on my motorbike and said disgustingly “khalas!” 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 appeared 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 Lebos Island, off Greece.
The lady gave me ten minutes to go to an ATM and get the $ 600 cash. She demanded dollars not Lebanese currency. The children seemed to understand what was happening and their eyes fixated on me.
What was racing through my mind as I mounted my motorbike and searched for an ATM were the expressions on the faces of these angels as their ‘caregiver’ bargained their fate.
Also I was acutely mindful of statistics that are well known around here these days. That nearly 14 million in Syria are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. More than half are children who are at risk of becoming ill from malnourishment or, abused and exploited. Most of us here know of many horror stories from all over Syria and the villages just an hour’s drive from the Lebanon border, such as Madaya and Zabadani where children under 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 in during 2015 and a dozen 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 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 from all but the neediest of refugees due to insufficient funds.
I thought of that recent Save the Children report of their 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 have seen children in their towns dying because of lack of food.
I thought about the intense vicious anti-refugee harangues from 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 in any Lebanese job holders. Many fear mongering Lebanese politicians even make The Donald appear somehow compassionate.
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, some of whom I have come to be acquainted with from my visits to the beach where I like to go to take a break and stare into the Mediterranean and just think about life and talk to those anti-social fiddler crabs who pop up from their homes along the beach, grab something and 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 they do regularly. Then the pedophiles molest the children for a few dollars before pulling off and disappearing into the traffic. Sometimes keeping 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 these 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.”This observer 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 not having held jobs outside the home before 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 and sometimes deny to 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 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 their 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 describe to the few NGO’s here who may want to help them, repeated assaults against them that they have not reported to the authorities. They do not report them due to lack of confidence that the police authorities would take action and the Syrian women fear 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 American who has ample reason to daily hang his head in shame over his country’s dozen years wars in this region and the deaths of more than a million people his government has contributed to, and its deeply immoral policy toward Palestine, has no such problem. He is able to show up at the local police station (General Security) near 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 a 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 stay at home and help care for them until we could get them some help, a proper home and the older boy “Khaled” 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 came of my efforts for nearly one week. Most of the calls were never returned.
The children were well taken care of by my friend and me and they were soon cooking and eating American cuisine including baking fudge brownies, chocolate chip cookies, enjoying my country style home made 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 make. 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 the darlings sheer joy and they soon were chatting and playing like chipmunks.
This observer often receives emails asking his opinion of events in this region, posing various questions or even asking his 2-cents worth of advice about academic subjects a student somewhere might be engaged in or is contemplating.
To date I have never has he been asked about buying Syrian refugee children in Lebanon.
If and when this observer is asked, and if the facts were similar to those I happened across recently near Ramlet el Baida beach in Beirut, with the priceless four sibling beauties, for whom I am now deeply honored to be their ‘American uncle’, without 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, to immediately price bargain and ‘buy’ the children from the trafficker. I would counsel the Samaritan to discretely photograph the seller with their smart phone. In my case having only a $10 used old Nokia ‘dumb phone’ which does for me all that I need done-its dials and answers calls -I gave the police only a physical description of the woman as I keep an eye out for her along the beach or when I am in Hamra.
All of us must do what we can to get these children from Syria a safe environment, a chance to play and to be children. Dear reader, if you happen to be in this area and come upon by chance a need such as I did, please make these angels feel protected and safe, make them warm, get them clean clothes, feed them, get them a medical examinations, contact authorities or NGO’s buy them a doll to love. Knowing you may not get immediately assistance, inquire about schooling,
And most importantly find them a mother dear reader. And hopefully before long they will be in a loving home until the hell next door ends and, as their country’s future, they can return home and rebuild it.
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|Liaquat Ali Khan|