Beirut - About four years ago, Ahmad* dropped out of school and moved to Lebanon from his home in Syria's Daraa province. He learned how to shine shoes, recognising that this would be his trade for the near future.

Around 11 years old when the crisis in Syria started, Ahmad moved to Lebanon with his older brother and cousin to make money to support their family after his father, a farmer in Daraa, was no longer able to work.

"We are the ones who take care of the family. I have another three younger siblings, and my father can't work," Ahmad told Al Jazeera.

Today, the 15-year-old spends his days traipsing through the streets of of Hamra in Beirut, competing with dozens of other boys his age carrying boxes of brushes and shoe polish.

"I tried looking for other work, but no one would give me any," Ahmad said. "There were a bunch of guys shining shoes, so I learned it from them and then started."


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Ahmad's story is similar to that of thousands of children on Lebanon's streets. According to a recently released study conducted by the United Nations Children's Fund, the International Labour Organisation and Save the Children in coordination with Lebanon's Ministry of Labour, 1,510 children live or work on the streets in 18 districts of Lebanon. The number could be higher if the rest of the country was included.

"If all of Lebanon was included, it may be possible to say there are between 5,000 to 6,000 street-based children in the country," said Abir Abi Khalil, a UNICEF child protection officer involved in the study.

The 115-page study found that 73 percent of the children are Syrian, eight percent Palestinian and 10 percent Lebanese. It also found that more than 50 percent were between 10 and 14 years old, with most entering the street-based workforce between the ages of seven and 14.

The type of work most prevalent is begging, followed by street vending. Other types of work include shoe shining, portering, car windshield washing, fortune telling, prostitution, and scavenging. Close to half of these children are illiterate, with just three percent still in school.

If all of Lebanon was included, it may be possible to say there are between 5,000 to 6,000 street-based children in the country.

Abir Abi Khalil, UNICEF child protection officer

Generally, the children working on the streets make less than $12 per day. Begging generates the lowest income, and illicit activities such as prostitution generate the highest. Most street-based children are in urban areas, particularly the country's capital, Beirut, followed by the northern city of Tripoli.

"I'd say I make around 20,000 - 30,000 [Lebanese] pounds per day [$13 - $20]," Ahmad said. "But when I get stopped by the police they take my [shoe shining] box away, meaning I have to pay more to replace it.

"Every few months I go back to Syria to check on the family, or we pool our money together and send it back to them in a taxi."

Some children have become entangled in a mafia-type network designed to exploit their labour, while others work within family units, simply trying to earn enough to make it to the next day. Abi Khalil says a large number of the street children work together, hoping to generate sufficient income for survival.

"Not all of the children are part of an organised network or gang," she said.

Around 61 percent of the street-based children came to Lebanon during the Syrian crisis. "The prevalence of children living or working in the streets poses a persistent challenge that straddles larger socioeconomic and political issues in Lebanon," the study noted. "The recent influx of refugees from Syria, many of whom are children, has certainly exacerbated this problem, but is by no means the core cause of consequence of children living or working on the streets."

Rather, the root causes involve complex webs of economic, social, cultural, psychological and institutional factors.

"These children are working because they want to survive, and in the absence of any income support for them or their families, it will be difficult to stop them, remove them from the streets and put them back into education," Abi Khalil said. "Many of the kids interviewed say they don't have hope, and this is their reality."

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Some children sell long-stemmed roses or string necklaces made of jasmine, while others trawl bars and restaurants selling nuts. Still others stand in the sweltering heat and pouring rain among rows of cars trying to sell pens, packets of tissues or bottles of water. They dodge security guards and waiters, who shoo them away from their properties.

As he stood in the pouring rain selling chewing gum at a main intersection in Beirut, 10-year-old Omar laughed when asked about schooling.

"I've never been to school," he told Al Jazeera. "I’ve been working here for the last two years [since leaving Aleppo]."

In another area of Beirut, nine-year-old Hadi sits alone on a cardboard sheet, the only thing protecting him from the cold, wet pavement. Every morning, his mother drops him off at the same spot, where he spends his hours begging passersby for food and money as his mother begs separately on another street.

Originally from Latakiya, Syria, Hadi does not recall when he arrived in Lebanon and says he has never attended school. 

"There are eight of us," he told Al Jazeera. "I have three younger brothers and sisters. The others are back in Syria."


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Abi Khalil says the Lebanese government cannot ignore this issue and must implement a long-term fix.

"The study basically provided a baseline to start at," she said. "What is needed is an extensive programme that can last over several years. This is not an issue that can be resolved in a year or two. For this particular phenomenon, we need to go to the kids, because they won't come to us."

Sejaan Azzi, Lebanon's minister of labour, told Al Jazeera an executive decision has been taken to deal with this phenomenon. "But it needs to be tackled in a humanitarian way, because these children are not criminals," he said, noting there are already plans to construct a shelter to help the children. "Any initiative that is implemented will take years because of the fact they are dealing with 1.5 million refugees in the country."

The state must work with children and parents to assess their individual situations and provide the necessary assistance to get them off the streets and back in school, Abi Khalil said, noting: "They are on the streets because they need to eat. It's as simple as that."

Meanwhile, although Ahmad knows he is responsible for the welfare of his family, he dreams of a normal childhood.

"Ideally, I'd rather be in Syria and back in school," he said, kicking at his shoe shining box.

*All names of children have been changed for their protection.

Source: Al Jazeera