Shoe Shiners of Beirut

On June 5, 2014, in Articles, by admin

Shoe Shiners of Beirut

The humanitarian issues of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees


By Eva Bartlett

Today I seem destined to write about the poverty of many Syrian refugees here in Lebanon. I’ve of course been noticing it from the start, but today all my encounters were with refugees trying to earn a living or simply begging for aid.

I realize that there are others on the streets who are like swindlers everywhere, feigning illness or pretending poverty.

But Lebanon does have over 1 million documented refugees, and hundreds of thousands of undocumented, if not more.

Walking down Hamra’s main street you see the thin women with one or more kids on her lap, begging.  Sometimes I see people stop and give money, most of the time though they are invisible, or an “annoyance” to passers-by.  Their numbers are overwhelming. I give money to some, but it would be impossible to give to all.

Nearly all the kids I see have discoloured hair (malnutrition) and ripped clothing. One toddler had the bloated stomach of a malnourished child.

Ahmed and Abdullah got me today with their sweet personalities and Ahmed’s sorrowful story.  He stood in the background, not asking for money, as I talked with Abdullah and three other teens. Most were 14, all trying to shine shoes to survive and to send money to their families. I gave each one 1000 Lira [Lebanese Pounds], not a lot but better than nothing, said goodbye and a few metres on came across this kid, probably 8 years old or so, barefoot and torn-clothed, skinny, street-dirty. I only had a pack of cashews with me to give him.

Abdullah caught up with me, big grin and not shyly said, “I’m hungry, please buy me a sandwich.”  So I took him to a place I knew and got the shop owner to make him one, he chose a juice. Ahmed stood outside and wouldn’t come in, wouldn’t take a sandwich, nor a juice.

We left, walked down the street, and sat on the sidewalk talking.

Ahmed’s father was killed 3 months ago, he didn’t specify by whom but he did say the “rebels” are there and there is fighting. It’s possible his house was shelled by either side. The terrorists are, after all raining mortars down on Damascus and environs daily, blowing up cars in Homs, shelling Aleppo and cutting off water to the population. And the Syrian army is waging a war for stability and against these “revolutionary” terrorists.

Ahmed is the oldest child, 16, and has three sisters.

“They are at Cola,” he told me. Cola is a main transportation hub somewhere in the centre of Beirut. Noisy, filled with traffic, polluted. But they can at least sleep on the sidewalk there, far from touristy Hamra, where they’re forbidden from sleeping on the side walks.

So he comes to Hamra, sits on the sidewalk with his shoe-shining kit and hopes for business…and to not be seem by the police. “We’re not allowed to do this work here,” he said. But it is the most likely place for business, with tourist and upper-class Lebanese.

His shining kit cost him 50,000 Lira. “I still owe 40,000,” he said.

“In Daraa, we had a home, land. I worked. Here we’ve got nothing. My family hasn’t eaten for 3 days, I haven’t been able to earn money.”

It is possible that Ahmed is embellishing the facts, I can’t know. But he spoke with sincerity, and what does it hurt me to believe him. I gave him money to buy food for his family, and insisted that I buy him a sandwich.

“La,” he said, no, with the tsk and nod of his chin.* “I want to wait to eat with my family.”

Abdullah, halfway through his sandwich, tried to get Ahmed to eat some, “I’m full, you eat it.”


Ahmed was studying in Syria, he preferred math. Here he’s struggling to survive and provide for his family.

We moved to sit outside a church. “I love this church, it’s so beautiful,” Ahmed told me. People walking past shot looks our way, finding it a bit strange to see the ajnerbia** sitting with two little unwanteds.

A very well-fed man walked past and gave me a lecherous glance. I asked him, “Can you spare some change for these kids?”  He said, “Why would I? They don’t need money.”

“They’re refugees,” I countered, “they’re living on the street.”

“The state should take care of them if they are refugees,” he said and walked off.

What happened to people’s humanity?

“You have more dignity than he does,” I told them.

“During the 2006 war on Lebanon, many Lebanese fled to Syria. We opened our doors for them,” Ahmed said, echoing what my Sweida friend told me.

“We fed them,” added Abdullah, “for free.”

“Here, we sleep on the streets and people despise us,” Ahmed said.

He said that sometimes people hit him. Why? “They don’t like to see me sleeping on the sidewalk, so they hit me.”

Again, whether or not Ahmed embellished any of his story–which I’m inclined to doubt–this situation of impoverished refugees here is abysmal.

* “La” means “no” in Arabic; the “tsk and nod of his chin” is a standard gesture that accompanies the expression of “no/nothing.”

** ”Ajnerbia” indicates a foreigner.

The above photo of the shoe shiners is distorted because the boys were afraid Lebanese police would see it and arrest them for shoe-shining, which they said is prohibited here.

Official statistical data on the Syrian refugee crisis can be found here.

By Eva Bartlett, 4 June 2014.  This article first appeared here and is reprinted with permission.  Eva is a human rights activist who has worked in Gaza, Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement and blogs at In Gaza. Eva co-founded the Syria Solidarity Movement and is currently living and researching in Lebanon.  She can be reached at


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