Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Beggars of Hamra Street

An old man soliciting money from café goers
Hamra. A street with a unique charm, combining all sorts of places from mosques, to churches, to restaurants, to pubs - a magical amalgam of all sorts of people from the veiled woman to the one with the skimpy outfit, to the.. erm... beggars.
Unfortunately, the beauty of Hamra has been tarnished with those persons who have become an essential part of it.
A year or two ago beggars - if any - used to be the polite kind who would sit quietly in a corner with their hand extended, or the artistic type, like this guy (link) which was at least tolerable. Well, Not anymore. What you come across now is the sort of beggars that actually follow you around and pick on you so much that you're no longer able to sit at sidewalk cafés, shop, or simply go for a walk without being harassed by them. This has become a major annoyance for both shoppers and shopkeepers; waiters at sidewalk cafés are constantly having to shoo them as they relentlessly try to solicit money and on some rarer instances food.

I was sitting at a sidewalk café when this group of beggars came in my direction

The beggars you see are (un)surprisingly very well organized and seem to collaborate with each other and work in shifts, and they also have people dropping them off and picking them up from their corners using either motorcycles or "service" cars. They are organized as follows:

  1. The woman with a baby:  This woman is usually in her mid-twenties to her thirties, with an infant on her hand. I have personally witnessed on several occasions a baby being handed over from one woman to another for use as a prop, so it's not necessarily the woman's child.
  2. The old man/woman in need of medicine: They will usually brandish some prescription to "prove" that they need them - it's almost always fake.
  3. The woman who goes "solo": At first it's not clear why this woman is begging at all - a perfectly healthy young woman who's physically able to work. The truth is that in many cases these women actually prostitute themselves to men with lower income (like van drivers) and use begging only as a cover-up.
  4. The swarm of kids: These are 5-12 year-old kids usually work in groups, selling chewing gum or flowers, wiping your windshield, or just soliciting money. Although they are the bulk of the begging workforce, their gang leaders seem to leave them without food as they are the most prone to accept food instead of money.
The same group of kids started showing off their skills for the camera
I chose Hamra to talk about its beggars because the begging problem has become very pronounced in this touristic area. However, all over the country, the number of beggars have been noticeably increasing over the years and they have been becoming more and more organized. The question is, who's responsible for fighting this phenomenon? I remember that the Lebanese Police has cracked down on them many times but as anything in Lebanon it only lasted for a couple of weeks. My concern here is not just that beggars are unsightly; to the very least the mafias working these beggars are violating many laws and humanitarian rights from child labor, to child abuse, to forced prostitution. 
This is where I urge the authorities to take action to tackle this problem, to put these kids in school and put the mothers who use infants as props in prison and take their babies away. Most importantly this is the time to hold the mobs unjustly benefiting from beggars accountable for once. Will this ever happen?


Post a Comment