Syria Crisis

When Syrian Kids Become Wage Earners To Eat

Violence, poverty and displacement have affected millions of Syrian children. In the besieged Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, many are foregoing their education and turning to selling wares in the streets to help support their families.

Children playing in Dukhaniyeh, in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria
Children playing in Dukhaniyeh, in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria
Dylan Collins and Al Basel Tadros

DAMASCUS â€" Violence, poverty and displacement have affected millions of Syrian children, sometimes forcing them to become the sole providers for their households. In the besieged Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, many are forgoing their education and turning to the streets to help support their families

As the situation here grows steadily worse, more and more children have become street hawkers to help their families make ends meet. Some are selling sweets made by their mothers, while others sell single cigarettes. Other children walk for hours, collecting discarded plastic they can sell for loose change.

Unlike other areas in Syria that have experienced relative calm since last month's implementation of the shaky U.S.-Russia-backed truce, the Damascus suburb is still an active war zone. The district, on the outskirts of the capital, has been under government siege for the past four years, almost entirely cut off from international aid.

Since the beginning of the cessation of hostilities, the Syrian government has prevented humanitarian aid from reaching at least five eastern Ghouta municipalities â€" Douma, Harasta, Arbin, Zamalka and Zabadani â€" according to a report from the UN Security Council.

Human Rights Watch said this week that Douma has been completely cut off from aid since 2013, when the government first began its siege of the city. Some 140,000 people still live there, according to local residents.

The grim economic situation has forced many of Ghouta’s children out of school and onto the streets, where a typical working day brings in about 300-900 Syrian pounds (between $1.30 and $4).

Save the Children recently estimated that some 7.5 million children are affected by the war in Syria, 2 million of whom are not attending school.

Omar, 10, has been selling goods on Ghouta's streets for nearly four years now. "I left school right after my father was detained by the government in 2012," he said.

Risking lives to earn money

Last August, when Syrian government warplanes attacked a busy marketplace in Douma, killing 82 people, Omar was selling sweets made by his mother. The boy had worked at the market every morning for several years, spreading out a small blanket on which he would place a tray full of sweets his mother had baked the previous night.

"I was a few minutes away when the plane came and dropped bombs on the market," said Omar, who luckily escaped the unharmed. "I never went back to the market after that day. Now I sell the sweets to children in front of a school near my house."

Omar doesn't go to school himself. He started working when he was just six years old.

His mother bakes the treats using flour, a bit of oil and some artificial sweeteners. Sugar is nearly impossible to come by in Ghouta these days â€" a kilogram (2.2 pounds) costs more than 4,000 Syrian pounds (about $18).

"Sometimes I feel sad when I see the children heading toward me to buy biscuits after school," said Omar.

Abdulrahman, 11, spends his days selling cigarettes given to him by some of the merchants in Douma, eastern Ghouta's largest city.

"I sell a single cigarette for 50 pounds (23 cents)," he said. "I usually manage to sell a lot because a full pack of cigarettes costs around 900 pounds ($4)."

Nobody has that kind of money these days.

Abdulrahman is in the fifth grade and one of the few lucky children in Ghouta who still manages to attend school, working an early-morning shift, from six to ten, before heading to classes.

"Sometimes I skip school, especially when I go to sell cigarettes outside Douma," he said. "I have to walk for a while, so I usually don't get back in time for school."

Ordinarily, Abdulrahman manages to earn between 300 and 400 pounds (about $1.50) a day. He adds this to what his brother earns, and the buy food with it.

Ahmed, 12, wakes up at the break of dawn every day to meet his friends. They then roam the streets of Douma collecting plastic bags and cans to sell at collection points, where some residents have begun the dangerous practice of extracting petroleum and other fuels from burned plastic.

One kilogram of plastic sells for about 1,000 Syrian pounds ($4.50) according to Ahmed, who started working full time when the siege was first imposed. His mother, a widow, needed help with the household expenses.

"In winter, we sometimes burn plastic to stay warm," he said. "Instead of wasting paper to light the damp, green wood, we use plastic bags."

But when the shelling and airstrikes start back up, Ahmed and his friends get too scared to go out, often missing their chance to earn money that day.

"Around four months ago, one of my best friends was killed while collecting plastic," Ahmed said. Since then, the group has been more careful about when and where they scavenge.

But with the absence of a truce in besieged eastern Ghouta, and an increasingly dire economic situation, every day brings unforeseen risks.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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