Walking Invisible - An Essay on Street Children of Lebanon

We need more art to provoke and catalyze change

Dear Reader, 

Welcome back to Berkana! Brace yourself, because today we need to navigate through some difficult stuff. I started Berkana with a promise that I would not only write about inspiring and uplifting stories but also about gut-wrenching ones. The ones that confront us face-on about the painful truths of some harsh human conditions and culture at large. After all, it is on the tip of a writer's pen that the titanic weight of truth waits to get revealed. Therefore, I must tell the truth, even if the truth is tragic. 

Disclaimer: This is not a feel-good article. It is not about inspiring cultural motifs, languages, or theology. This specific write-up is about human suffering and neglect. It is a response to our collective indifference to the pain of a minority. It is a harrowing and heartbreaking tale set in the backdrop of a reality worse than any dystopia. It is my attempt here to wake you up to the broken shards of this world and awaken your intention to fix it. If you desire to turn your eyes away and read something else instead, please read no further. You can come back to this when you feel more ready. 


He is not crying anymore 

..their dreams of a better life in the new world drowned with them in the timeless ocean. At the shores of Turkey, they met with the same violent fate that they were fleeing from Syria to escape.

2nd September 2015 was the day the world woke up to one of the most tear-jerking images of the decade. On a beautiful shore of Bodrum, Turkey, lay the lifeless body of 3-year-old Syrian child Alan Kurdi, face down on the golden sand. His wretched body was pale and washed up against the blue-green waters. A sight too devastating even for the Gods of Elysium who are genuinely indifferent to human suffering. A gigantic wave of sorrow and anguish washed over the entire world, a world too fragile to handle the horrendous outcomes of its own doings. Alan’s family were fleeing from the civil war in Syria and were seeking asylum in the west. However, their dreams of a better life in the new world drowned with them in the timeless ocean. At the shores of Turkey, they met with the same violent fate that they were fleeing from Syria to escape. The graphic photograph of Alan’s lifeless body was a cruel reminder about the pitiful handling of the refugee crisis by the European Union. History is repeating itself with thousands of Afghan citizens terrorized by the Taliban seeking asylum in the EU. The policies to accommodate refugees range from a variety of less welcoming to hostile (check here). In the wake of media sensationalism, we often forget that these humans have just escaped the inhuman circumstances of their homeland and are desperate to find asylum. The desensitized mainstream media perspective is at the root of indifference and hostility towards the refugees who have already lost everything and everyone they knew and loved. 


Humanizing the wounds 

To challenge the widely popular unreasonable media interpretation of the refugee crisis, rose a breed of artists, writers, and filmmakers revolutionizing the outlook on these intricate and sensitive human conditions, commenting on the world as it is rather than what the policymakers want us to believe. Alan’s death hurled global artists together into an angry mass. By nightfall, Twitter flooded with provocative graphic artworks, a beckon to sensitize the refugee crisis. #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik which is Turkish for “humanity washes ashore”, trended for months on Twitter. The intent was to hold the world accountable for failing thousands of innocent children like Alan, protecting who is our civil duty. 

..Zain’s despair with his existence in a broken world that gave him nothing but the pain of abandonment. Labaki masterfully documents his rabid anger and relentless spirit as he sets on the quest to avenge his cruel fate.

Capernaum Trailer: Cannes Sensation and Jury Prize Winner | IndieWire
Zain Al Rafeea, the child who played Zain in the movie was a Syrian refugee when he was discovered in the streets of Beirut. His eyes say it all. Courtesy: A still from the movie

In the past few years, millions of Syrian refugees poured inside Lebanon without active government policies to assist the inflow. The situation has gotten direr and direr every year. Children trying to sell random things or begging on street corners is now a common sight in Beirut. Nadine Labaki, the Oscar-nominated Lebanese filmmaker, said every time she went out, she would see a small child knocking on her car window with their tiny hands, begging for alms. Torn between her affluent lifestyle and humanitarian zeal, Labaki decided she needed to do something about the situation. After three years of rigorous social research and working for hundreds of hours with the Beirut street kids - Labaki presented the world with her masterpiece.  Capernaum is her most profound work that marries the world of cinema to the world of activism. In her dynamic documentary-style film  Capernaum Labaki brings us face-to-face with Zain, a streetwise 12-year-old with hauntingly eloquent eyes who has long lost his innocence in his fight for survival on the Beirut streets. Labaki gives us the perspective of a child (Zain) on how it feels to have been born in a world where you are unwanted even by your parents. We feel Zain’s despair with his existence in a broken world that gave him nothing but the pain of abandonment. Labaki masterfully documents his rabid anger and relentless spirit as he sets on the quest to avenge his cruel fate. Capernaum (which means ‘chaos and miracle’) is a work of art created to hold the world accountable for turning its eyes away from the misery of those innocent children whose fates are sealed with dread even before they were born. Labaki aimed to humanize the stories of the street kids of Lebanon. It is a tale of the lost innocence of those little ghosts of the streets of Lebanon, who are still walking invisible in broad daylight. 


Even in murky water, compassion can bloom 

“These are the ‘children of the streets’: They aren’t thieves, and they aren’t criminals.” 

These children stuck in the rut of difficult life circumstances are no different than us. They harbor similar hopes and dreams to live meaningful lives same as any other kid. The only difference is, the refugee children lack the basic human necessities like food, shelter, and safety. Therefore, they inadvertently grow with more propensity for delinquency. The pre-conditions like lack of resources and nurturing upbringing lead to many of them ending in juvenile homes.

Cynthia Sleiman, a social worker and a child protection specialist in Beirut, recalls some heartbreaking yet inspiring details about her experience with these children. She tells the story of a shy, brave, and an affectionate boy called Mo’men. He was described as ‘violent and dangerous’ in his file when Cynthia took him under her wings. Cynthia narrates her encounters in bare-bones style in one of her blog posts. She writes that one day she found out from one of Mo’men’s friends that he did not tell Cynthia that his arm was broken. When Cynthia inquired the reason, he said “Look now, Cynthia, so this broken hand of mine, is it more important than Mohammed’s mother who needed to go to the hospital? Or Tha’er’s children who need to eat? Take care of them. My hand’s now fine.” The incident made Cynthia wonder about the immense emotional depth and capacity to feel universal compassion by a 15-year-old who lives in subhuman conditions and worked more than 14 hours per day. Reflecting on her experiences, Cynthia declared, “These are the ‘children of the streets’: They aren’t thieves, and they aren’t criminals.” 


The final straw 

..the insurmountable grief of those innocent children will rise like wildfire of hatred, and one day it will burn away the world which failed to keep them warm. 

Lebanon is on the verge of an economic meltdown, now accelerated by the pandemic. The massive blast in the Beirut port was the final straw in the series of unfortunate financial circumstances. The GDP is declining sharply in 2021, and inflation shot up way beyond 100%. The social class structure is collapsing. The middle-class is getting pushed towards the poverty line, and the already poverty-stricken refugee population is struggling to procure food. 

As per the UN statistics, refugee households are living at half the minimum monthly wage of Lebanon. It led to deprivation from necessities like food, drinking water, sanitization, shelter, healthcare, and education. The families resort to their final mechanism for survival at the cost of the well-being of their children. Child marriage, child labor, illicit activities like smuggling forced upon children, slavery (both physical and sexual) are a few examples of horrific crimes inflicted on children from these families today.

To prevent this extreme and appalling humanitarian tragedy from unraveling further, Lebanon requires financial support from the developed nations. Sufficient funds would enable the refugee community to access services, healthcare, and livelihood, helping them progress. The last step is to restore peace in Syria and encourage people to return to their homeland without fear or apprehension. It is high time that the world leaders stop turning blind eyes to the sorry plight of Lebanon’s refugee crisis. Because if Lebanon collapses, it will take down with it the hopes and dreams of a million refugee children. If we don’t act now to elicit responses from our world leaders, the insurmountable grief of those innocent children will rise like wildfire of hatred, and one day it will burn away the world which failed to keep them warm. 


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