War has left the children of this Syrian city trapped between childhood and adulthood.
Five-year-old Fernando has dirty hands.
As diners eat in the alleyway restaurants of the Coyoacan neighbourhood of Mexico City, he goes from table to table begging them for money.
“My mum punishes me if I don’t get coins,” he explains.
But that rarely happens, because he is good at his work. So good, in fact, that his family call him “monedita” or “little coin”. He often makes $10 a night.
It helps that he can count to five in Otomi, an indigenous language. “Nh’á, Yoho, H’ñu, Gojhó y K’ûtha.” He uses this display to break the ice with the diners, who invariably reach into their pockets to give him a peso or two in return.
Tonight, he walks hand-in-hand with his eight-year-old sister Jessica. She wants to be a film star, even though she has never watched a movie.
Fernando says he’d like to take her to see one when he is older. Then he half-heartedly demands: “Take me to the movies.”
Without films to watch, Jessica entertains herself by standing in front of an advertisement that proudly declares “What a great day to be you, know the joy intensely”, imitating the pose of the smiling, fair-skinned model.
Their mother, Hjitzi, whose name means “sky” in Otomi, brought her children from Puebla, a state three hours from Mexico City, in search of a better life. Their father stayed behind to work on the land.
The best thing that has happened to them here, Hjitzi says, was when they were paid $13 for attending a meeting of the Green Party. Her daughter now carries a backpack emblazoned with the party’s initials.
She has few places to take it, however. The children do not go to school any more because their mother doesn’t know how to register them.
“I was in first grade of elementary school,” Fernando says. “I used to go with my sister, but one day we stopped going. I liked the backpacks of the other children.”
Now Fernando and Jessica learn their lessons from the streets.
They spend most of their day at a taxi stand where they watch soap operas and Jessica imitates the actresses. She says she would like to be on television one day. But, for now, her best performances are reserved for the diners who ignore their requests for a coin; she has perfected the art of the put down.
Their mother, when not distracted by TV shows, weaves toy dolls that she then sells on to vendors. Fernando says that he used to help her, but not anymore.
They live with six cousins on a rooftop that costs them $40 a month. But Fernando says he doesn’t like it there. “I don’t like sleeping with them because they snore,” he says. “Yesterday, my sister accidentally kicked me.”
One of the cousins they live with is 18-year-old Israel. He works in a pizzeria, where he earns $10 a day and where each pizza costs more than his salary. It’s a job with some perks.
“Israel always brings me pizza,” Fernando says. “I like pizza. Buy me a pizza.”
But Israel has bigger dreams. He wants, one day, to become a lawyer – one with a very particular cause: to defend his family’s land back in Puebla.
In recent years, mining companies have moved into the region to exploit its natural resources. The family only has a small field. But it is where their roots are, and Israel is worried that they are being gradually dispossessed.
Israel believes that there are children with luck and children with charisma – and that Fernando and Jessica have both. He says begging for coins on the street helps to forge their characters.
But it is difficult for the children not to get distracted by the smartphones of the diners. Sometimes a young female diner will let them take a look – and they are momentarily absorbed in the screen, fascinated by the view of the world it offers – until an impatient boyfriend grabs it away again and offers the children a coin to be on their way.
Fernando dreams of being able to buy a smartphone of his own to play with.
But it is midnight now, and this brother and sister’s work is done for the night. They head back to their rooftop home, stopping on the way to buy peanuts from a street vendor with a dollar given to them by a drunk diner.
Fernando has just one more appeal left in him. He turns to me. “Come on, give me a coin,” he says. “I just want a coin. Nobody wants to give me a coin.”