BEIRUT — It was 10 p.m. on a chilly recent Wednesday, and the bars of Beirut were just getting into full swing. So was 10-year-old Mohammed Huzaifa’s working day.
Clutching a vase of red roses, he scoured the outdoor tables for a softhearted target. Spotting two women deep in conversation, the round-faced boy sidled up and broke into a wide smile, but was motioned away with a sharp shake of the head.
Mohammed, shivering in an orange T-shirt, repeated the steps with other potential customers until he had sold all 10 of his flowers. A beating from his mother awaits him if he doesn’t sell out, he says, so he often roams the streets until 3 a.m.
The United Nations announced that Lebanon registered its millionth Syrian refugee on Thursday, making the tiny country — which had a population of just over 4 million before the Syrian war — home to the highest concentration of refugees in the world. Among the most visible representatives of that influx and the impact of the Syrian war on Lebanon’s capital are children such as Mohammed, who fled the violence and ended up here, selling flowers, tissues, chewing gum or shoeshines on the streets of Beirut.
Lebanon has no refugee camps for Syrians. But it has soaring rents and little assistance for the migrants, meaning thousands of children are forced to work to support their families. At least one in 10 Syrian refugee children work, according to estimates by UNICEF, which says that figure is probably higher in Lebanon, where only about one-third of those children are enrolled in school. Those who peddle goods on the street are vulnerable to violence, robbery, sex rings and even the illegal organ trade, Lebanese security officials and humanitarian aid workers say. Then there are the less visible child workers, toiling in factories and agriculture.
Each child has a story.
Mohammed’s began when he was 8 years old and living in Manbij, a northern agricultural town on the fertile western banks of the Euphrates. His three-story house, where he lived with his widowed mother, grandmother, brother and six sisters, was being expanded. The family also owned a farm in a nearby village, and he and his siblings played with abandon among the farm’s 1,300 olive trees. He went to school, although his mother says he was more mischievous than studious.
“Syria was the most beautiful place in the world,” said Mohammed.
Then the war came to his door. Syrian rebels had stormed the nearby city of Aleppo, and the government began launching airstrikes. As the battle raged in July 2012, Mohammed’s mother, Umm Alaa, decided the family should seek security in Lebanon.
Now their farmhouse in Karakozak has been taken over by Islamist rebels belonging to the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the family says.
The village has become a potential flash point for Turkish intervention in the war, home to the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the Ottoman Empire’s founder, which ISIS has threatened to attack and neighboring Turkey has pledged to protect.
Against that backdrop, Mohammed’s family sees little chance of returning soon. Today, the family of 10 lives in a single rented room in a dilapidated five-story building in Beirut, which provides cramped housing for more than 350 Syrians.
They pay $350 a month for a room with peeling paint and a tiny, dingy kitchen with a propane stove. Mohammed’s mother works as a cleaner in a bank and receives food aid from the United Nations, but the $266 she earns monthly is insufficient to cover the rent.
She says she has no choice but to send her children out to work. And so Mohammed and his older brother, Alaa, 12, spend about 10 hours selling flowers each night, keeping an eye out for each other and trying to avoid the police. It is illegal work, and Mohammed has already been arrested twice.
“This vase is our little company,” Mohammed said, clutching the white plastic vessel as he stood at a bustling intersection one recent night.
But their business puts them in constant danger. After a bumper sale on Valentine’s Day last year, Mohammed and Alaa were making the 15-minute walk home when they were attacked and robbed by a group of men armed with knives who made off with the brothers’ earnings.
The boys’ patch stretches along a few blocks at the end of Beirut’s bustling Hamra Street, where Syrian accents are now as common as Lebanese ones. Mohammed tries to stay away from the bars: He doesn’t like drunks, and they don’t often buy flowers anyway.
But on this Wednesday night, business was slow. He had been arrested the week before and sent to a children’s shelter, where his normally meticulously slicked-back and parted hair was shorn to prevent lice. The short hair, he said, was affecting sales.
“My hair was beautiful,” he said. “The ladies used to love it. I used to comb it this way or that way, and everybody used to buy from me. Now they don’t.”
Alaa had stayed home, so Mohammed teamed up with Diab, an 11-year-old tissue seller from Damascus, to try the bars closer to the city’s American University.
The high after Mohammed’s first sale of the evening — to a young couple who stroked his head and paid more than $3 for a rose — proved short-lived. Suddenly, he was grabbed by the scruff of the neck by a police officer. Towering over him, the officer stamped his leather boot on Mohammed’s foot and shined a flashlight in his eyes.
“What’s your name?” the officer barked. “Who sends you out to work?”
This time, he was let off with a warning and not hauled off to police custody.
“It doesn’t help to solve the situation,” Abir Abi Khalil, a child protection officer for UNICEF, said of the arrests. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
After Mohammed’s arrest the previous week, he spent a night at the police station. He was then sent to a government-funded shelter for abused and abandoned children in the mountains above Beirut, where he stayed until his mother managed to get him released one week later.
The Home of Hope, run by a Christian nonprofit group, has 70 beds, which its managers say is nowhere near enough to meet the needs. Cases like Mohammed’s are among the least serious they see.
Child labor is not new to Lebanon, where established networks traffic in children, said Maher Tabarani, the home’s director. But with the influx of Syrians, those networks have a new stream of children to prey upon, he says.
“It’s not about street kids. It’s bigger than that. It’s not about flowers and chewing gum,” he said. “Some of these kids are forced to sell drugs; some sell their bodies.”
One child at the home on a recent day was taken into care after a family member tried to sell his kidney, an act officials say is becoming more common as the population of desperately impoverished refugees grows. Another previous resident of the home, just 11 years old, had been sold by his father to a prostitution ring, Tabarani recalled.
The court handling the case later ordered that he be returned to his family.
“You feel like all the work is for nothing,” said Tabarani. “Seventy percent don’t want to go back to their families, and shouldn’t, but if the court rules that, they are obliged to.”
Lebanese authorities are ill-equipped to address the problem of Syria’s child refugees, advocates say. UNICEF has warned of a “lost generation” of Syrian children who are missing out on years of education.
Mohammed, who is enrolled in classes run by a local nonprofit organization, struggles to attend.
As he touted flowers at a busy traffic intersection one afternoon, his teacher spotted him and stopped to ask why he had been absent from school. He complained that nobody wakes him in the morning. Alaa, who was with him, assured the teacher that he would send Mohammed home early, at midnight, and make sure he got up in the morning.
But the next day, Mohammed did not attend.
His mother says education is now secondary to food and shelter. Sitting in her apartment, she pointed to the children surrounding her.
“They sit here alive next to me, but their futures are dead,” she said.
Ahmed Ramadan contributed from Beirut.