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Many in northern Syria live off rubbish dumps

Years of war pushed many people to the brink of poverty, leading children and women to beg for money or search through garbage in order to make ends meet.
Syrian children sift through garbage at a landfill in the rebel-held part of the northern city of Aleppo, on October 27, 2015. According to UNICEF, more than 2.6 million children from war-ravaged Syria are out of school, sparking fears of a "lost generation." AFP PHOTO / FADI AL-HALABI / AFP / AMC / Fadi al-Halabi        (Photo credit should read FADI AL-HALABI/AFP via Getty Images)

IDLIB, Syria — The war and displacement generated dangerous social phenomena in northern Syria, including panhandling and picking through garbage, as most people suffer from poverty, while other families have lost their main providers. Numerous child beggars are seen in the streets and denied access to education and basic care, whether they live in the displaced camps or the cities and towns of northern Syria. Scores of women are seen lining the streets begging passengers and shop owners for money, which point to a wide-scale phenomenon that has turned into a profession in itself for some. 

Fatima, 10, who fled along with her family from the town of Maaret al-Numan to Idlib city, is begging for money in the streets, although a splinter had previously hit her leg. “The high prices are forcing us to beg for money in the streets all day long so we can buy bread,” she said. “I need to make money to eat. My father died two years ago and there is no provider for the family."

Fatima said that her classmates mocked her tattered clothing, which stopped her from going to school.

Speaking to Al-Monitor on the reasons behind the spread of begging, Ismail Meshaal, a community health worker for Syria Relief and Development, told Al-Monitor, “The begging phenomenon worsened after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution [in 2011], given that most Syrians in the northern parts of the country suffer from harsh economic conditions, especially the displaced who abandoned their houses and sources of livelihood. Also many families lost their providers to the yearslong war and the education was halted in some parts [of the country] leading to the exploitation of children in begging.”

Meshaal noted that begging is one of the most dangerous phenomena in the Syrian community, which has a psychological and social impact on the beggars including a lower self-esteem. In addition, it denies the children their right to a normal family, to have access to education and to play, which is crucial for the development of their personality. 

Meanwhile, many residents in northern Syria live below the poverty line and pick through trash to collect anything they can sell again or burn in fireplaces.

Mahmoud, 12, walks toward the rubbish dumps, carrying an iron rod and a large bag on his back, near the refugee camp in Sarmada in northwestern Syria, searching in the trash for plastic materials to sell. Some days, he searches in the demolished houses for scrap to sell. He told Al-Monitor that many recyclable materials can be found in the ruined houses.

Mahmoud, who was displaced from Saraqeb countryside, said, “I wake up early in the morning to go with other children to the trash dumps where I collect plastic and copper wires. I sell them to street vendors at low prices who in turn sell them to factories for recycling and manufacture.”

He said he dislikes what he does and would rather pursue his studies. Yet his family’s financial situation and school location far from where he lives are preventing him from getting an education. The hard work conditions and daily contact with the trash cause Mahmoud to be exposed to hazards, and the possibility of catching a serious infection.

Umm Adnan, a displaced woman from Hama countryside who now resides in a camp in northern Idlib, collects garbage along with her neighbor in the camps in order to provide for her family. “We face many problems and difficulties as we work. We are being exploited by the merchants who buy what we collect at a very low price. We need the money, and it is hard for us to move the collected items that could be sold from the dumping sites to the camps because of the rough land and because we have to carry everything on our shoulders. The work is also very tiring and there is the fear of the regime shelling and air raids.”

Collecting garbage and trash picking doesn’t come without major risks, including infections and diseases. On Jan. 6, three children were killed in a garbage dump collapse located on the outskirts of Idlib city, as they were collecting steel and plastic materials.

Ahmed Absi, a pediatrician from the city of Idlib, stressed the risks that garbage collection could cause to people's health — not only those working on the dumps, but also those who pass by the trash containers and dumps. He told Al-Monitor, “Waste involves the airborne transmission of many harmful bacteria. Based on that, many waste collectors may be exposed to diseases, including malaria and cholera, as well as other skin diseases and respiratory allergies."

Faysal Hamoud, case manager at the Syrian Child Protection Network — set up in 2012 in Daraya in Rif Dimashq to provide services to children, such as psychological support, education, case management, capacity building, and to provide training to those working with children in the protection program — told Al-Monitor that “poverty and lack of jobs push many to beg for money or collect garbage for a living in order to make ends meet.”

Hamoud explained that the network monitors cases of begging and garbage collection among children, and sets up empowerment projects for their families. Yet the large number of poor families and those in need is preventing this phenomenon from being reduced.

He noted that a group of guardians from the network is working to raise awareness in the community of the danger of begging and garbage picking, via campaigns and guidance on the long-term risks in an attempt to solve this problem. He also stressed the need to give female providers access to jobs in order for them to make ends meet without having to ask for anyone’s assistance. He suggested training workshops that would allow women to work and rely on themselves in earning a sufficient income.

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