Echoes of the Forgotten Future Generation
I desired to touch the sky, hear the unseen, feel a stone, and smell a sound… I was an ordinary child, with odd dreams. My mind used to be preoccupied with thoughts of growing a rainbow colored wing that didn’t fly…
Having basic care and protection, I was able to nourish my imagination and aspired to dream.
“I want to earn more than $5 a day and care for my 7member family,” said a young boy with a heavy sigh, pursing his lips in thought. Mohammad is a ten year old with unkempt, lightly oiled brown hair and deep green eyes who likes chew gum more than selling it.
He was born and raised in the historic district of "Balad" in the cosmopolitan city of Jeddah home to 3.4 million people - the same district where I grew up. The district has a unique blend of history,architecture, poverty, richness of culture and has been a favorite destination for tourists and diplomats.
Sitting right beside my window I saw the former British Prime Minister John Major touring the area years back.
To satisfy my curiosity about why a prime minister would tour an area right in front of my window I attempted reading newspapers, watched the news and started to be intrigued by the historical and architectural significance of my area. Little did I know not every child growing up in the same area did not have the privilege of imagining, asking, looking- up information, thinking or even the time to be curious.
Mohammad sells chewing gum with his buddy, a much younger child –from afternoon to evening, daily.
Both share a deep friendship often seen among adults, a passionate bond of trust and love.
He is the youngest among his siblings, his father works in a shop selling blankets. He has two sisters at home who can read/write and help with household chores. He lives with his 7 member family in two rooms and the entire family relies on his father’s earnings which are not sufficient to cover day-to-day expenses.
His family came from Afghanistan years ago - as refugees, legally/illegally or trafficked, he could not disclose. He made sure he didn’t answer the question; he kept on saying he has an ‘iqama’ (residence permit) with a pretentious face.
“I learned to read and write at home; my parents taught me basic alphabet and counting”, he says. I couldn’t help but notice how vigilantly he counts money.
I asked if I could take a picture of him – ‘Oh no! What if you give it to Jawazat!? (Immigration office)” he asks with an inquisitive smile.
He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to sell chewing gum tomorrow,he does not know which country he will be in 5 days time, he doesn’t know if he has a future in this land. But he knows that he doesn’t want to go back to his own country because his father said there’s a war - he knows that he can’t get caught by officials, he knows that he can’t go to school. He feels he is destined to sell chewing gum.
Mohammad exemplifies a typical definition of “street children” in Saudi Arabia. According to the last comprehensive study done 4 yrs back by the King Fahd Security College, there are around 80,000+ street children across Saudi Arabia, the average age being 7 years old. These “street children” are not literally homeless but spend much of the time on street, begging or as street vendors.
The numbers have gone dramatically down in recent years due to intense government crackdown and awareness. But similar to solving most issues in Saudi Arabia, taking two steps forward and simultaneously one step back – in this issue we have taken one step forward and are still standing there.
To understand the multi-faceted factors involved in the life of street children, it’s imperative to explore the issue in the paradigm of trafficking, child labour, child sexual exploitation, illegal/legal migration, religion, refugees and local sponsorship system. Government officials estimated around 24,000 children involved in street selling and begging were trafficked into Saudi Arabia from 18 countries. (UNICEF)
Saudi Arabia is home to nearly 7m migrant workers. Most visas do not permit bringing families inside the country. A few migrant workers use Hajj/umrah visas to bring their children and wives. Family dependents lose legal status when their visas inevitably expire. Existing children or children born in Saudi Arabia without legal residence status do not have access to birth registration, private or public schooling or access to public health services.
Mohammad is a lucky child for not being encouraged to beg by his family - unlike many families urging their children to beg or renting them out to adults as beggars to organized groups. This exposes children to trafficking networkers for the use of labour and sexual exploitation.Begging individually often leads to being tracked down by authorities and most likely deported if found non-native. As a result some undertake the risk of ‘enrolling’ kids with organized trafficking
groups that have connections with local law and enforcement. This “connection” may not be explicit but just “overlooking” them.
2.5m Muslims visit Saudi Arabia every year for the purpose of pilgrimage and thousands more visit for lesser pilgrimage
throughout the year. In the religious context, begging is discouraged in Islam and Muslims are encouraged to give only to ‘legitimate’ beggars (e.g. disabled or children in poverty). However, Muslims are encouraged to give to poor and discouraged from repulsing beggars. Availing easy requirement for Hajj/Umrah visas, traffickers often target these religious seasons to traffic children into the country or recruit from within.
Charity is recommended in the Arabic month of Ramadan – this month transforms cities into a heaven for child beggars and child street vendors. Although rarely seen among children, traffickers often bring in disabled adults from various countries to ‘employ’ them in begging, exploiting public sympathies.
A doctoral study submitted at Naif Arab Univ. (2009) reached a conclusion that Jeddah may be a hub for an international child trafficking networks, groups exploiting Umrah Visas. Jeddah’s close geographic proximity to religious sites and its cosmopolitan nature makes it a ‘transit’ city for many pilgrims.
I caught up with Ihtisham, a school teacher who lives in an area with many street children from different communities.
“You can see children roaming in the street night and day. They don’t go to school and they play, beg or rely on handouts from people,” she says. “Unable to find work, steady work, sometimes the father stays at home. The mothers work as house helpers and the children are out on the street the entire day, often mixing with the wrong crowd”
Ahmed, 12, sells water alongside traffic lights during the day. He was born in Saudi Arabia and his family originally comes from Yemen. He cannot afford school fees and he earns $5-10 per day by selling bottled water. He lives with 7member family in a flood damaged house. He says his country is Yemen although he doesn’t know what it’s like but his father wants to return and so he wishes the same.
The border region of Tawal hosts the largest official border between Saudi and Yemen. According to a border guard, at least “one infiltrator is arrested every five minutes", in the border region.
Although Fewer Yemeni children were trafficked to Saudi Arabia in 2009 than in recent years, Yemen remains a transit and a destination country for traffickers. The recent unrest in Yemen also poses a danger of increase in trafficking numbers.
Akram, 13, has been living with his family for ten years. He sometimes works at a car workshop to supplement his father’s income, earning $10 a day. “I would love to go to school, but private school is so expensive,” says Akram. His family wants to go back to Pakistan, but he says his father has ”Sponsor issues"
With all the beggars, vendors or child workers I have spoken with, almost no-one felt comfortable sharing how they or their families came here. Only one revealed how they avoid authorities by becoming a “part of a group”.
UNICEF estimates a child beggar can potentially earn US$250 a day depending on the “season”.
My encounter with 3-4 children beggars this month revealed a similar (off season) figure ranging from $150-200 per day by each child. A very high figure in comparison to children selling water or chewing gum – explicating why begging is an attractive business as opposed to trading/working.
Saudi Arabia is categorized in Tier 3 of “trafficking in person report 2010”released by the US state dept. It is a destination country for trafficking. Tiers 3s are “countries whose governments do not fully comply with minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”
It is important to see the intrinsic link between child trafficking and child beggars, even the first report published on this issue by UNICEF combined the two tittles. Although it’s common to see more boys than girls - young girls join their mothers to beg or sell on traffic lights along with other children. These girls expose themselves to high risk of sexual exploitation, given that all the drivers in the street are males.
“A small number of foreign adolescent girls who are seen soliciting at traffic lights and by the roads are reported to be using beggary as a cover for prostitution on behalf of their families or of traffickers.”(UNICEF)
The Ministry of Social Affairs frequently publishes reports on arrested beggars. The latest report includes 760 citizen children, including girls. The reasons behind citizens begging are different from non-nationals but poverty does not discriminate among nationalities. Divorced and widowed women with no mahram(male guardian) face severe discrimination, social, legal, economic . Lack of employment opportunities for women is another factor; some are women and girls with special needs.
Fatima, 10, is a daughter of a widow who begs with her mother. Her mother’s says her relatives have abandoned her. “I am a Saudi women and I beg to feed my children,” she expressed forlornly.
The Ministry of Social Affairs has set up a sub ministry for “combating beggary”. If a beggar caught is native, she/he is sent to a welfare shelter for assistance. If found non-native, all the details are registered and investigated to see if he/she has legal residency. If a legal resident, the family of the child can pay a fine. The child can be released, unless arrested thrice in which case they are deported. If a child is found illegal she/he is deported within a few days or weeks.
The government works with NGOs to create residential centers for children awaiting deportation. The immigration office works with the World Assembly of Muslim Youth which operates in several countries where the children originally come from. Creation of these shelters is a major breakthrough since children were previously kept in shelters with adults. Although there is no indication of lack of physical care provided at the shelter, but UNICEF and human rights org. have urged the shelters to provide critical legal assistance and more attention to psychological well-being.
There are laws to combat trafficking and more recently more penalties include up to US$ 266,652 fine and 15 yrs in jail, including harsher penalties for trafficking in women, children or the disabled. But prosecutions of traffickers or similar exploiters foreign children are rare and authorities reportedly deport children to countries where they are at risk of recruitment as child soldiers and trafficking. 150 Somali refugees were deported last year including children from Jeddah.
Ibrahim M, the founder of the “Human Rights First Society” unequivocally endorses his organization’s report that the government violates its own laws. Violations occur through the way the laws are written or not written. If only the official legislation that does protects basic rights were practiced in real life. Saudi Arabia’s basic law of governance says, “The state shall protest human rights in accordance with "Islamic law"
UNHCR sponsored a book in 2009 to highlight the influence of Islam and pre-Islam tradition on international refugee law. The study reveals how tradition respects refugees, including non-Muslims; forbids forcing them to change their beliefs; avoids compromising their rights; seeks to reunite families; and guarantees the protection of their lives and property. The UNHCR commissioner Guterres writes "Even though many of those values were a part of Arab tradition and culture even before Islam, this fact is not always acknowledged today, even in the Arab world."
The official approach is to stop begging but not to ensure beggars don’t beg anymore. There’s a general public apathy towards beggars, though not begging.
Although people are aware that by giving on street or buying from street vendor will only perpetuate the number – they “give” in this way because it’s the most accessible way. NGOs need to ensure making “giving” easy so that people know that there’s an alternative. NGOs that shelter these children must show how individual money makes a difference – it’s about being transparent to people and not only to international organizations or local government. NGOs can easily develop schooling programs at least for 3 hrs a day. It’s not about money; it’s about the will to do more! A lot of children speaks fluent Arabic and can write their name.
Our thoughts and insights are limited by our own life experience –we cannot possibly solve an issue looking down from a skyscraper. The way cities are build only serves to exclude a significant population from mainstream life. The middle-classes and the upper-classes only see child beggars when they beg on their side or child vendors when they sell on their side, only igniting sympathy and furthering apathy.
What is common between these street children and well-nurtured children is that young boys on both edges of the city are encouraged to be men from 5+ yrs. There’s a lack of concern for boys spending too much time on streets or not going to school – it’s not uncommon to see under-age boys driving. Street children are taught to bring money home – these children understand the importance of money more than anything else,
Young boys are children, not men and what these children need is empathy, not momentary sympathy or material generosity. The way we learn about deprived children is when an appeal is launched for money with faces of desperate, crying children.
We need a holistic approach based on increased partnerships with NGOs, with people, and with governments across borders. A photo essay project I have initiated along with a print magazine and a non-profit primarily aims to “humanize” these children. It’s a learning project for college- going upper class students to learn about lives on the other side of their cities. There are guidelines to ensure pictures speaks about the details of daily lives in a way that induces interest and builds understanding, pictures that ignite empathy as opposed to sympathy. That’s a crucial first step in my journey!
Let’s not fail to hear the silent voices, not forget that today’s children are tomorrow’s youth.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.