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The Harsh Reality Of Young Syrians Vending For Their Livelihood

“We didn’t have a good life. Here it’s the same — but no shelling."

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Kelly Lynn Lunde

14-year-old Abdul came to Beirut with his younger brother from the al-Hasakah province of Syria last year. “There was a lot of shelling,” says Abdul, a soft-spoken teen who has retained his unassuming demeanor. “We didn’t have a good life. Here it’s the same, but no shelling. It’s better, but I want my parents to come.” The boys were sponsored by an aunt and stay with her in the city while their parents remain in al-Hasakah.

Like clockwork, a band of Syrian children emerge every afternoon along a stretch of seaside avenue in the Raouché District of Beirut, peddling red roses and darting between taxis and luxury SUVs into the early morning to meet daily quotas. For most of the young refugees, selling flowers is the reality of a poverty they were born into: a method of generating an income for their families while also being exploited by middlemen and traffickers they may or may not be related to.

A small sectarian state that is still recovering from its own wars, internal strife, and consistent political corruption, in addition to hosting a pre-existing Palestinian refugee population, Lebanon is heavily affected by the protracted civil war in next-door Syria. One quarter of Lebanon’s population is now made up of refugees from Syria, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Kelly Lynn Lunde

Khalil, Abdul’s younger brother, is a precocious and talented singer, sometimes drawing crowds with lyrics that evoke love and longing for his home and family. Khalil is expected to make 50,000 Lebanese pounds (about $33) a night, working from 4 p.m. until 5 a.m. He is not permitted to return home before meeting his daily quota. According to him, his and Abdul’s proceeds go first to his aunt and then to his family in Syria, as his father has a disability and cannot work. The actual money trail is more complicated; it involves an abusive middle man who provides the flowers and most of the money is likely pocketed before reaching Khalil’s family.

Some 1,500 children are reportedly working the streets in Beirut alone according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), a number that, in reality, is thought to be at least twice as much. “This statistic counts only hot spots where children are most concentrated,” says ILO’s child labor consultant, Hayat Osseyran. “This number could easily be double… at least 3,000 in the hot spot areas alone.”

Despite being the norm of any pedestrian’s daily commute in cities like Tripoli and Beirut, child labor is technically illegal in Lebanon, as is begging. This leaves street children highly vulnerable to arrest as well as exploitation by individuals, while those responsible for placing them in the street are frequently overlooked by local authorities.

Kelly Lynn Lunde

Hussien, 6, (center) has been working since he was 3 and doesn’t talk much. He is a tenacious worker but is often sideswiped by cars and suffers falls that render him continuously covered in scrapes and bruises. Met with sympathy from people who perceive his age and size, Hussien typically brings in the most out of the boys, giving all his earnings to his father. When his father is in debt, Hussien is passed on to others for a few days in order to pay off the debt owed.

Kelly Lynn Lunde

Saed stands against a parked car along a street in Raouché. Many of the children BuzzFeed spoke to do not recognize their reality as forced laborers. The prevalence of this occupation has been normalized to the general populace, which has become accustomed to being pestered by flower-toting kids seeking to make their day’s quota.

Kelly Lynn Lunde

Abdul eats dinner around 11 p.m. on a traffic island in Raouché after a Good Samaritan gave the group several boxes of to-go food from a nearby restaurant. The boys are often hungry and dependent upon daily donations from passersby for their meals and water.

Kelly Lynn Lunde

A pair of sneakers is left on the sidewalk after several of the boys tried them on unsuccessfully. A woman had bought some clothes and shoes for the boys who, despite some disagreement, shared the collection of items.

Kelly Lynn Lunde

On a break from a hot summer night, 15-year-old Mohammed pours bottled water over the head of Rami (age 10), Saed’s younger brother. As the eldest and one of the few independent flower sellers, Mohammed acts as a caretaker, mediating feuds and calming flared tempers. The teenager lives in a small rented room and speaks proudly of his independence, but dodges questions about the whereabouts of his family.

Kelly Lynn Lunde

Mustafa, 9, stands with Abdul after fashioning a swimsuit from a trash bag. While Syrians are not the only ones working in this capacity (Lebanon is also home to around 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees), they make up nearly three quarters of all those underage on the streets. Work permits are difficult to obtain for the vast majority of Syrian refugee adults, who are also restricted from legally working in most fields, so a family’s financial burden often falls onto children.

Kelly Lynn Lunde

Abdul dives into the sea just before sunset on a summer evening. He and other young refugees often take breaks in the evening for a quick swim in Dalieh, one of Beirut’s few public beaches that requires no entrance fee.

Kelly Lynn Lunde

Because begging and child labor is illegal in Lebanon, Khalil has been arrested five different times by local police. Each time, he is released after paying a fine and spending half a day in the holding cell. “Once I stayed here working for three days straight,” he says. “I couldn’t go back home to sleep. I didn’t meet my daily quota and my friend who usually helps by giving me money was out of town, traveling in Germany.” The ubiquity of their presence often renders street children largely invisible, leaving them highly vulnerable to anonymous individuals that solicit them for illicit activity and sexual exploitation.

*Names have been changed to protect the identify of the boys

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