Beirut, Lebanon – The sight of street children selling flowers and chewing gum and shining shoes has become as much a part of Beirut’s landscape as bullet-ridden mansions and glitzy bars.
Most are Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon to evade the war in Syria and find safety. For Ahmad al-Zoubi, a 14-year-old who polished shoes to supplement his family’s income, it proved to be anything but safe, and his death has set off a controversy that has sent shock waves through the city.
Ahmad was found dead at the bottom of a six-floor ventilation shaft in Verdun, a western suburb of Beirut, last Tuesday, three days after he was chased by municipal police in the residential area near the building.
His family said that after he went missing they inquired about him at a police station and a local hospital but were given no information. It wasn’t until they visited the nearby Salaam Mosque, where Ahmad often pitched his shoeshine stand, that they saw CCTV footage showing the time their son was last seen.
It showed Ahmad running away from the police and turning into an alleyway in a residential area. Two policemen chased him but returned alone. There is no recording of the last minutes of Ahmad’s life but the implication is clear – he fell to his death while the policemen were somewhere near him.
His cousin, also named Ahmad, said that the family was not accusing the police of killing him, but blamed them for scaring the boy into a panic, and thus into falling down the ventilation shaft.
“The municipal police are one of the reasons for sure for his fall,” the cousin said. “He was in mortal fear of them.”
The teenager had been detained several times before, from a few hours to a full day, and beaten.
Majdoline Lahham, a local activist, is working with the family after they approached her for help.
She shared the CCTV video through social media to show the dangers Syrian children were facing. It triggered a wave of outrage, with hundreds planning to stage a march in the city in the next few days.
Nasser Yassin, director of research at the Issam Fares institute in the American University of Beirut, and cochair of the AUB4Refugees initiative accused the authorities of “forcefulness and high-handedness” towards street children.
He said the police needed to reexamine their standard operating procedures when they caught children working on the streets.
“These are kids – not criminals,” he said. “The police must go with social workers and take help from NGOs.”
In a statement, the municipality said that the police followed the “laws and regulations” and merely wanted to question the teenager over the theft of a “zakat” (a tax on Muslims to aid the poor) donation box stolen from near a hotel in the city. They said that whenever they arrested someone, it was “without any violence or abuse”.
Lahham said it was ironic that Ahmad was suspected of stealing zakat money. “Zakat money is for the poor, and he is very, very poor,” she said. “Do you see what I am saying?
“Anyway, the police did not find any box near him and only about six dollars in his pocket.”
Ahmad was one of more than a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 70 percent of whom live below the poverty line. His father makes a few dollars a day as a porter. The cost of living in Beirut meant that Ahmad had to venture out and earn whatever he could to support the family.
His cousin said Ahmad was the eldest of eight siblings and wanted to help. He never confided in his family about the troubles he endured with the authorities. “He wanted to continue to work and protect his brothers and sisters,” said his cousin.
Paul Donohoe of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Lebanon said that children like Ahmad not only worked “punishingly long hours” but also often faced abuse.
He said that more than 60 percent of the children surveyed by the IRC had experienced either physical or verbal abuse and, in some cases, sexual harassment.
“It is estimated that there are 1,500 children working on the street and 180,000 children involved in child labour in Lebanon,” Donohoe added.
Ahmad’s death coincided with news of an Oscar nomination for a Lebanese film, Capernaum, which focuses on the lives of street children.
In the film, directed by the famed Lebanese actress and director Nadine Labaki, the 12-year-old protagonist Zain sues his parents for giving birth to him when they were not in a position to give him a decent life.
Ahmad did not get a chance to seek answers from his father for having a large family. He could not question the Syrian state for imposing a war on the country forcing him to flee nor could he ask the Lebanese state to show mercy.
In real life, often, justice is harder to find. Lebanon’s police have yet to offer a full explanation for what happened in the last minutes of Ahmad’s life.