Al mashriq - The Levant

Courtesy of the Daily Star August 19, 1999

Schooling the Chiclet children
Julie Hannouche on one woman’s help for an area begging for education

What to do about the beggar children? Does buying their Chiclets encourage them to work or to beg? Either way, it’s not easy to ignore them, though the government seems to have done just that.
At least one woman has been unwilling to turn a blind eye. Agnes Sanders has been trying to rewrite the script that dooms the futures of the nawar, or gypsy children, from the Hay al-Gharbeh shanty town near Sabra. She is putting them into school.
Two years ago, she helped renovate two rooms of the old al-Mona school building which is slated for eventual demolition. She painted the windows a cheery yellow, bought desks made by a local carpenter and brought in three like-minded teachers. Then she culled 44 kids aged nine to 12 from the streets and the corrugated metal huts they call home to teach them to read, write and count in a three-year program so that they might have a chance at a future.
“We won’t take them younger than nine because if they graduate before 12 they’re still young enough to be sent back out begging by their parents. Our hope is that a 12-year-old with basic knowledge can find an apprenticeship and learn a trade,” explains Sanders, a family physician, who came to Lebanon two years ago to help “those least able to help themselves” on behalf of a philanthropic organization in the United States.
Sander’s project has no official status, but she is determined that children who, according to some “don’t even belong in Lebanon,” should be given a better chance.
Who are these children and where do they come from? Sanders has compiled statistics on 50 of the around 200 families in the shantytown, which lies between Sabra and Shatila, in the shadow of Cite Sportive. From these 50 families, only two or three fathers work at any given time. Mothers average nine children. And despite what’s commonly thought, most children have at least one Lebanese parent. Still, they lack the official status needed for public education.
One reason for this is that to be officially recognized, a marriage between Muslims must be registered before both sheikh and the civil authorities. For children born to a second wife, whose only proof of marriage is often a promissory note signed by the man, chances are slim of ever becoming legal.
With money collected during annual fundraising trips to churches in the U.S., Sanders sponsors the lucky ones who do have papers to public schools only 60 children last year. But places are few.
“People don’t realize that these are children who have never done a puzzle, and don’t know what it means to wait in turn,” she says. “We believe these kids’ parents will come to understand that having one educated child who can care for himself and for them in their old age beats having 10 uneducated, unemployable children.”
The previous tenants in the school’s nearly ruined building were sheep and chicken. With help from friends in Sweden who made the children’s smocks in the blue and yellow of the Swedish flag, the school has taught its organizers as well as its students. “The challenge for us has been keeping the kids here,” says Sanders. “In September, the parents beg us to take them. But a few weeks later, we see the kids on the street begging or playing football.”
Sometimes, it’s not the children’s fault. One boy was sent to live with his aunt after his mother went to prison (he gets another chance next year). But during the month of Ramadan the school lost 12.
“The parents lacked the discipline to wake the kids up in the morning after late-night partying,” says Sanders. “No school would accept that.” They also charge LL5,000 per month tuition to teach responsibility. “One of the little girls sells Chiclets after school to make the fee,” she says, “ and then fights with her mother who wants to spend the money for cigarettes.”
Exceptions are sometimes made. Two children from a family of 11 were exempted from tuition after their little sister fell into a cooking pot. The child is recovering from third-degree burns.
The families have varied beliefs about putting children to work. While some of the most destitute would never send their children out to beg, begging for others is a family profession. Then there are the working children. One 10-year-old, who runs errands for a mechanic from 7am to 6pm, is considered a hero because he brings home a daily income of LL3,000.
“These are our challenges until now,” continues Sanders. The latest hurdle comes from losing use of the school’s buildings before the first class can graduate. It has been taken back by its owners, a local association, for a temporary dispensary. Sanders is seeking a new site within walking distance, and with room for the children to play safely during recess. The organizers are willing to rent after-hours space from another school and even march or bus the children there, but this would present other problems.
“These kids are so despised,” says Sanders, “that they are cursed by people in surrounding neighborhoods even as they walk to school.”

DS: 19/08/99