Monday, 4 August 2014

Documenting displacement: starting the interviews in Daura, Beirut

Documenting displacement:
starting the interviews in Daura, Beirut

These past couple of weeks I have been visiting Daura, one of the poorer districts in Beirut to help a Belgian friend interview Syrian refugee children working here in Lebanon. Daura is a combined bus station, housing estate, meeting point and manic criss-crossing of highways. Wagons of odd shoes for sale sit beside dead cats and fresh fruit juice shops. It is a residential area choked with the exhaust fumes of thousands of cars heading in and out of the capital, and a place where many Syrian refugees can afford to live in shared accommodation.

Sarah is making a documentary about the children who come to Beirut to work, with or without their parents. The number of Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon extends beyond 1,700,000. More and more it is easier to identify the Syrian children at work. They are the children in clothes that don't fit, carrying large loads or selling chewing gum. They are also the ones looking out for policemen.

The first boy we met was fourteen years old, and I could see from his huge boots, absurdly big for his size, that he worked in construction. He was sending money back to his family in Syria. He asked each of us to show some identification, proving we were our respective nationalities and told us he did not want to talk to journalists. We explained we were not journalists, that Anna was a teacher, Sarah was a social worker, I was a writer.

Anna and Sarah have been speaking fusha, or Classical/MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) for several years now. Anna joined our class for a few weeks to pick up some of the amia, Lebanese/Syrian dialect. Together they have written a list of twenty-one questions in fusha and amia to ask the children.

The second boy we met was an eleven-year old with beautiful eyes, who sat so proudly on his taped up delivery bike, it could have been his noble steed. He wore an over-sized cast-off Liban Poste shirt and giggled when I asked him if he was a postman. He was happy to talk with us and told us he lived with nine other children and delivered goods with the bike.

Three more children were willing to talk to us, and had questions for us too. A sassy girl in a camouflage dress, arms folded, wanted to know where we were from and if we had boyfriends. Her friends, a younger boy and a tall girl - who tried but failed to hide shyly behind her shorter friend - told us they lived nearby with a woman they described as an aunt. We asked if they went to school in Lebanon and they said no. Did they want to? No. They told us they worked from six in the morning until seven at night, selling the very chewing gum we had just bought from them.

Where this chewing gum comes from is a continuing mystery. I saw it first when I was arriving back to Beirut from the northern coast one evening. A woman came and waited with me on a traffic island with her two small children. She sat down in the middle of the highway heavy with traffic, shielding her eyes against the blazing lights of cars, and nodded in greeting while the two small girls offered me the chewing gum to buy. I knelt down and sat with one of the girls for a bit, at once sad that a mother could put her children in such danger and awed by how fearless this daughter, with her curly hair and joyful eyes, seemed to be in the middle of the chaos. I felt my Arabic fail in my mouth and could only ask min wayn enti? Where are you from? She said sooriyeh

I thought of the past three years of conflict in Syria, the violence they must have fled, but saw that there was a danger, a violence, to the scene there that night too. It reminded me of something Ela Bhatt said in India last year, something that applies deeply in Lebanon, where the rich live so glamorously alongside the poor:

"Poverty is violence. And poverty is violence with the acquiescence of society."

Poverty is violence, as violent as the harsh petrol fumes that burn the lungs of women and children begging on highways night and day, the lack of fresh water in the middle of the Middle Eastern summer, the absence of safe, affordable shelter in the upcoming winter. Poverty is the sustained violence that follows conflict. The next time I saw the family I had a bit more Arabic so could speak to the mother and hear how they had arrived from Syria. I gave her daughter my headphones to listen to David Bowie and managed, slowly, to understand that her husband, who stood nearby with a limp, had been wounded and this was the only way they could now work. 

Thanks for reading, the interviews continue.

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