DAMASCUS — Maher knows more about trash than a nine-year-old should know.
"Some of it stinks more than others," he says, chuckling at his own remarks. "At first I used to feel like I was about to faint before I finished my job, but I got used to it."
It’s not unusual in different areas in and around Damascus to see children and sometimes older men or women climbing into garbage cans, foraging for scraps of food. Passersby often turn their faces away from the scene. The young children who collect goods from the garbage can are often insulted or beaten by their peers, who ridicule their digging and the mess they create around the garbage cans.
Raef, also nine, digs into the trash with his brother. They work as a team – they call it a gang – and manage to pick out the best pieces of trash on offer. “If I alone don’t bring useful stuff to sell, my father will hit me,” Raef said.
What do they do with this garbage? “Sometimes we find something to eat," said Maher.
He explains how they separate and categorize each item: bread, plastics, clothes, shoes, and even vegetables, leftovers, and food materials that only sheep would eat. " We collect all of these and sell them to people that could make use of them by selling them to other people or by using them.”
He says the people who buy the items usually recycle them, for example, plastic and iron cans are fused to make other objects. Although he refused to join the conversation at first, Maher's brother Zuhair later commented with anger: “Most of those buyers are exploiters. They buy things from us for very cheap prices, but we have to sell to them because we want to live.”
As for Raef, who came with his family from al-Hussienia to al-Barde too, he says: “I quit school from the second grade, I was lazy he laughs, and I don’t like school anyway, and I don’t like this job either, but I had to work after my father’s car was stolen. My father was a taxi driver, and his car was our source of living, and he was once beaten by the police before us because they accused him of joining the Free Army, and they then found out that he was innocent of this charge.”
Too many to control
Raef adds: “My father became too afraid to leave home, he feared that if he did, he might be accused again or get taken at army checkpoints. I must work so we can eat."
Raef's father has a drinking problem and gets rough with his mother and younger brothers. But he rarely beats Raef, because his foraging brings the family a trickle of income. The family lives in a small room in an unfinished building; they can’t afford more space.
The children foraging through dumpsters rarely get to study or play. Also, they live in fear of a stronger scavenger assaulting and robbing them. "They live by the laws of the streets, the strongest among them rules," explains Manal, a Syrian social worker based in Damascus. "Often there is a "tax" to pay, and normally it’s an amount of money, or a gift offered regularly to someone who protects them in one way or another."
One Damascus attorney, who didn't want to give his full name, recalls the ‘anti-begging and unemployment’ patrols of the past. "They used to catch these children and investigate their parents or whoever encouraged them to perform this job," said the lawyer. "But now with the current crisis, there are too many."