Scores of Syrian Kids Are Now the ‘Street Children’ of Lebanon
As Europe scrambled to deal with waves of refugees seeking asylum within its borders, the issue didn’t seem to hit home with most Americans until one pivotal moment: when the haunting image of Aylan Kurdi—a three-year-old boy who washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach after drowning alongside his mother and five-year-old brother—went viral.
Aid workers in the region, however, have been on the ground trying to cope with the influx of Syrians fleeing their war-torn homeland since the conflict began in 2011.
So far, more than 4 million people have been registered by the U.N. Refugee Agency in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and North Africa, and most—a staggering 51 percent—are under the age of 18. The high levels of displacement have thrust scores of Syrians into homelessness and poverty, forcing many children to forgo school so they can work to help keep their families afloat.
In Lebanon, the number of registered refugees has surpassed the 1 million mark—making up 25 percent of the population—with more than 1,500 "street and working children" selling tissues, begging, and shining shoes to help meet their families' basic needs. Since 2014, the International Rescue Committee has been on the ground in Beirut and Mt. Lebanon, the capital, engaging the children in psychosocial activities that teach self expression, communication skills, the difference between good and bad touches, and how to manage their emotions. The IRC has also helped hundreds through its case management program, which connects families to much-needed social services.
“We approach children on the street and try to develop a relationship with them so that we can slowly integrate them into the program,” says Sara Mabger, IRC’s child protection coordinator in Beirut.
One way they’ve managed to serve hundreds of young refugees is by employing caseworkers who are able to build critical bonds with the children, who have often experienced severe trauma. This can be a daunting task, but the IRC relies on the efforts of professionals like Rehab Yahya, who has been with the team since the beginning.
“I came to IRC to help them. It was my passion,” Yahya tells TakePart, noting that she first heard about the refugee crisis during her college years. “Before I joined the IRC, I was seeing children in the street and near my home who were very vulnerable. I tried to support them personally by giving them food. It was a little bit, but I felt like I was helping them.”
These days, her job is to help Lebanon’s street children. However, it isn’t always easy to meet every child’s needs.
“I work with some children who are extremely neglected and exposed to violence on the street. It’s a challenge,” she says. “Sometimes they are homeless and we help find them a safe shelter, for the child and their families.”
Some of the children Yahya works with are unaccompanied minors whose families have sent them to Lebanon to remove them from the conflict zone, but most are what the IRC calls “separated children,” who are living in Lebanon with extended family or friends.
“It’s not easy,” she reiterates. “Sometimes it takes a long time for us to meet the family of a child because the children don’t trust anyone on the street, so it takes a long time to build their trust.”
Still, progress keeps her and the IRC committed to the job—despite the daunting task, they’ve helped several displaced Syrians start over.
“One family had five children and were living under a bridge,” she says. “Most of the children had malnutrition because they hadn’t eaten in about five days. It was the winter and they didn’t have anything.”
Yahya—who often works nontraditional hours to make sure street and working children and their families are taken care of—would bring the family food and blankets after office hours.
The extra effort paid off.
“One of the children was three months old when I identified the case; now she’s a year and three months. I have seen her growing up, and she’s amazing,” Yahya says, a smile apparent in her voice. “I found them a home, and the children even stopped working on the street. After that, we found a job for the father.”
While her work can be emotionally draining and difficult, it’s this kind of success—helping one family at a time to improve their lives—that makes it worthwhile.
“Sometimes when you see an improvement for a family, it gives you more passion to help other families,” Yahya says. “I get encouraged from the families to continue this work.”
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction 11/2/15: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of street and working children. It is more than 1,500.
This article was created in partnership with TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, in support of the film Beasts of No Nation, produced in part by Participant Media and distributed by Netflix.