DAMASCUS At first, 10-year-old Rania was too ashamed to tell her story. She spends her days begging for change on the streets of Damascus. “I never imagined myself as a beggar,” she says. “I’m so ashamed when I ask for money.”

Rania and her younger brother were forced onto the streets after their father died during clashes in Hajjar al-Aswad, a lower-income area of the city. After his death, she, her mother and four siblings moved into her uncle's modest apartment in Tadamun.

The family had a roof over its head but no income. Her mother, with children to raise, is unable to find work. The uncle is unable to feed an additional five people. They occasionally receive aid from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, but the rising cost of basic food staples mitigates anything that comes in. For Rania's desperate mother, turning her children out onto the streets seemed like the only option. And in her family's eyes, the choice to “work” as beggars is paying off.

“Occasionally, I get lucky and I get 800 Syrian pounds ($6) a day,” Rania says. “Sometimes, I get no more than $5, but usually, I don’t make more than 200 pounds ($1.50)."

Their “only option”

Rania and her brother are hardly alone on the streets. They're seeing more children join them, as clashes intensify in other parts of Syria and people flee to the relative safety of downtown Damascus.

Last year, the World Food Programme interviewed beneficiaries of its aid programs in seven regions, including Damascus city and rural Damascus. The group said that the number of families with at least one member begging on the streets had risen from 5% to 9% in a single month.

The organization characterized this strategy as the “only option” for these families, saying that those unable to cover rent “are living in uncompleted buildings, abandoned stores, old bus stations, factories or warehouses.” Since then, the number of child beggars on the streets of the capital has continued to rise. “Child labor is becoming more and more widespread in Syria, not just inside Syria but in neighboring countries,” says Juliette Touma, regional communications head for UNICEF. 

“Being a beggar is a form of child labor,” she continues. “It reflects how bad the economic situation has become, that families are pushing their children to work. We’re seeing that more and more. These children who are begging on the streets don't go to school, so it's of huge concern for us.” (UNICEF says more than one million Syrian children currently have no access to education.)

A wider problem

The phenomenon is not limited to Damascus. In Beirut, the city’s landmark Hamra Street is dotted with Syrian mothers holding young children. And in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, Syrian children chase tourists, clinging to their legs, begging for spare lira.

A child in Damascus. Photo: Hendrik Daquin.

Often, 7- or 8-year-olds are the sole breadwinners in their families. On one street corner in Istanbul, Mazen, 8, begs alongside his disabled father, who has lost his leg.

“I made it through first grade, but I dropped out of school to help my father beg,” Mazen says. “People don’t give me a lot of money, but I don’t know how much we make, because my father takes all our earnings. He buys me a sandwich every day, and sometimes, he lets me play at the park.” With the exception of his oldest brother, who washes car windows in the Fahhameh area, Mazen’s other siblings don’t work.

Two are too young to beg, and his father doesn’t allow his two sisters to work on the streets after a man harassed one of them, who is 12. Mazen would like to join his brother at work, rather than beg, but he’s still too short to reach the car windows.

The young beggars are facing backlash from residents in areas where they work. Often, their parents will drive them to wealthier neighborhoods and leave them unattended for the day, returning at night to drive them home.

“I hate leaving the house now,” says Munira, 55, a resident of middle-class al-Baramkeh. “Beggars sprint towards you if they see you give someone money. I used to feel sorry for these poor kids, but now I’m more angry at their parents for leaving them exposed to [all sorts of] danger.

On the al-Raees Bridge in downtown Damascus, 4-year-old Alaa runs circles around her mother, who holds her 2-year-old twins. Mother and daughter both beg.

“May God keep you. Please help us,” Alaa beseeches passing drivers. “My dad died and we’re hungry.” The family, from the Damascus suburbs, is homeless, sleeping on the street, in parks or in deserted buildings. They fled the violence in their neighborhood after Alaa’s father was killed in clashes two years ago.

The presence of Alaa and her family — and other homeless child beggars scattered throughout the city — is one more signal that the war, kept largely at bay, is slowly encroaching on central Damascus.

“We occasionally used to see beggars here and there before the crisis started in Syria, but today we see them everywhere,” says Ahmad, 45, a lawyer living in downtown’s Ain al-Kirsh neighborhood. “The relevant authorities must stop it either by giving aid to those who need it, or by catching those who have taken up begging as a profession.”

Alia Ahmad reported from Damascus, and Karen Leigh from Tbilisi, Georgia.