It is the 31st of October. While other children around the world are getting ready for Halloween, twenty four Syrian street-based children will be going to Swings camp, a picnic, camping and activity park in El Metn, Mount Lebanon. At 08:30 in Beirut the sun is shining bright, there are no clouds in the sky. The weather is an agreeable 20 degrees. Eight staff from Amel Association International and a country representative from French NGO Samusocial International (Amel’s partner) meet at the Haret Hreik centre to wait for the children, who have been picked up by the bus we will later use to get to El Metn. A while later excited children from the capital’s southern neighbourhoods fill the ground floor of the centre. Many of them live in Informal Tented Settlements (ITSs) on the outskirts of Beirut. Most of them do not go to school.
What being a street-based child means
A street-based child is a child who is either living and sleeping on the streets, or who is exposed to the streets through working, begging, or garbage-searching to sell items. Deprived of a decent childhood and basic opportunities, street-based children are amongst the most vulnerable in Lebanon. They are exposed to exploitation, physical and psychological abuse, and sometimes even sexual abuse. Not only do they work in dangerous conditions – lifting heavy objects, or at risk of road and traffic accidents – but their life on the streets has scorching impacts on their physical health and mental well-being. Furthermore, working out on the streets vastly reduces children’s educational and schooling prospects and increases child marriage rates. 27% of Syrian teenagers in Lebanon between the ages of 14 and 19 are married, meaning more than one in every four Syrian girls in the country are in unions that are unlikely to let them go to school, and more likely to force them into early labour.
Arriving at the picnic and activity camp
The one hour bus ride to Swings is filled with singing and laughter. To get away from the endless noise and the pollution in the capital is a treat, even if it is just for one day. When we arrive we see just how idyllic this place is. Tall trees stretch into a cloudless sky. The sun beats down but the temperature remains perfect. The air is clean and crisp. All that can be heard are the children’s chatter and teachers’ instructions for the activities. As the children clamber out of the bus they are placed in two different groups according to their age. They are handed out red and blue caps that they will later get to keep.
The older group starts with the rodeo bull. Each child takes a turn, encouraged by their friends. Some of them manage to hold on to the bull. Others fall off onto the inflatable floor below in a matter of seconds, laughing. Leila* (11) is the first girl who challenges the bull, an example to other girls in the group who may have been slightly apprehensive at first but who are now motivated to try it for themselves.
On the other side of the camp the younger group is tree-climbing, guided by two dedicated Swings staff. The children find it tricky to begin with, after all tree-climbing is not an easy task, but as they learn how to navigate the moving steps, slings and ropes connecting the trees they begin to feel more comfortable. In the end it becomes many childrens’ most memorable activity. Zeinab* (9), who is dressed in pink from head to toe says: “I love tree-climbing because I had never done it before and now I know how to!” At 11:30 it is time for a morning break. The delicious scent of warm za’atar manoushe fills the air and each child is given a bottle of water. Once they have finished wet wipes are handed out.
The activities that follow are equally thrilling. The small children are taken to do bungee jumping and they absolutely love it. Sami* (7) jumps up and down while his friends cheer him on. When he finishes he grins. “I made the most jumps!” he says. Amira* (6) is very keen to try. One of Amel’s instructors says she has a strong personality, for she is brave and strong-willed and is not fearful. It comes across. She cheers in delight every time she drops back down to the ground. Later on we see her enjoying chasing a chicken around the camp.
Some children are guided to a lone 15m tree and are challenged to climb it. Rami* (6 and half) is the first one to attempt it. He makes his way up with relative ease, stopping at times to decide where to next place his feet. When he makes it to the top he smiles down at his cheering crowd. “It was very beautiful” he says, back on the ground. “This is my favourite activity”.
Meanwhile, the older group is taken to a neighbouring giant swing, dubbed ‘the mother of all swings’ by the camp itself. Grouped in pairs, the children quite literally fly through the air when the swing drops. Ali* (10) loves it. “My heart sunk in my chest!” he says. Hassan* (13) and Wissam* (14) are talking enthusiastically when they get off. When asked if they are enjoying themselves today they say they are very happy. “The swing has been the best part so far” they add.
Amel’s Protection Mobile Unit
Today is a big day for the children. They are not used to being out in nature or interacting with other children in fun educational activities that have nothing to do with the daily struggle of being out on the streets. A full-day outing like today’s is an important component of Amel’s Protection Mobile Unit (PMU) project, implemented in partnership with Samusocial International and currently funded by the French Agency for Development. The latter responds to the needs of street-based children in 15 countries.
The aim of the PMU project is to reconnect children and by extent their families with basic services that include psycho-social support, health, education, food security and legal support, by following Samusocial International’s methodology of street intervention and social care. They are identified directly by the Protection Mobile Unit – one nurse, one social worker and one driver social assistant, – who assess their individual needs before referring them or accompanying them to Amel’s centres (or other organisations if their needs cannot be catered for by Amel). Working with these children is extremely sensitive, given the many vulnerabilities they are exposed to. Often times social workers are met with understandable fear and distrust from the children themselves, or with resistance from parents. However, home visits and the distribution of small goods, like items of food, clothing or diapers allow the team to build a “link of trust” with the children and their families. Since the launch of the project in July 2017, 514 children have been identified.
A day to remember
As we wait for lunch, the children spend some time at the camp’s playground, covered in orange autumn leaves. The girls love the trampoline. They are counting how many times they can jump up and down in a row. They are breathless, laughing as they topple over each other. At 13:30 it is time for a well-deserved lunch at the picnic area. Today the children are getting shish tawook (marinated chicken), French fries with ketchup and a choice of either apple, pineapple or orange juice.
We catch up with Zeinab* (9) before we head back to Beirut to ask her about today’s experience. She has borne a smile from ear to ear all day. She used to sell tissues in the streets two years ago, but thanks to Amel’s support she is now fully-enrolled in school. When asked what her daily routine now looks like she says: “I wake up in the morning, get ready, make my bed, help my mother with some house chores, do some homework, have breakfast with my dad when he comes back home from his night-shift job and then my mother takes me and my younger brother to school. I do not work anymore”. She really likes going to school. She is learning a lot and has many friends.
It is Halloween, and while the sun sets Amel staff hand out small pumpkin buckets. Inside there is a pumpkin mask, some biscuits and a Halloween-themed water bottle. The children are delighted with their gifts, a souvenir of today’s memorable experience. As we head to the bus, Hassan* (13) says that he really did not think the outing was going to be so much fun – it was much better than he expected. He has loved the activities and has made new friends. “I hope there are more days like this in the future” he adds, “far from the streets.”
The scale of the street-children issue
Lebanon hosts close to 500,000 Syrian children, many of whom are street-based. A UNICEF report in 2015 found that there were 1,510 children across 18 districts in Lebanon who were living or working on the streets. 73% of them were Syrian, and two thirds were male. The first access to the labour market was happening between the ages of 7 and 14, and the average working day was close to 8.5 hours. Things have not improved. A report by UN Lebanon in 2016 as part of ‘Lebanon’s Crisis Response Plan 2017-2020’ estimated that male child labour amongst Syrian refugee children had increased from 4% to 7%. Outdoor activities like today’s are crucial to give street-based children a chance to enjoy their childhood in a safe environment. For one day they have lived and played like children are supposed to, as they deserve.
*Names have been changed for anonymity purposes.