“I got used to the smell of garbage. Some of it stinks more than others,” says nine-year-old Maher, laughing at his own remarks. “At first I used to feel like I was about to faint before I finished my job, but my nose got used to the stench.”
It’s not unusual in different areas in Damascus and its countryside to see children and sometimes older men or women climbing into garbage cans, foraging for scraps of food. Passersby often turn their faces away from the scene. The young children who collect good from the garbage can are often insulted or beaten by their peers, who ridicule their digging and the mess they create around the garbage cans.
Raef, also nine, digs into the trash with his brother. They work as a team – they call it a gang – and manage to pick out the best pieces of trash on offer. “If I alone don’t bring useful stuff to sell, my father will hit me,” Raef said.
What do they do with this garbage?
“Sometimes we find something to eat,” said Maher.
“Often we separate and categorize things, each item alone: bread, plastics, clothes, shoes, and even vegetables, leftovers, and food materials that only sheep would eat. We collect all of these and sell them to people that could make use of them by selling them to other people or by using them.”
He adds, “People buy these items to recycle them. Plastic and other materials are fused to make other objects, and so are iron cans and others.”
Although he refused to join the conversation at first, Maher’s brother Zuhair later commented with anger: “Most of those buyers are exploiters. They buy things from us for very cheap prices, but we have to sell to them because we want to live.”
Zuhair and Maher were displaced from Yalda to the al-Barde area on al-Kiswa Road. They moved with their family of seven siblings, their disabled elderly father, and their stepmother, who only takes care of her little four children at the expense of Zuhair and Maher, who had to quit school after their decampment, and then took the job of collecting waste. As for their older sister “Shadia,” 12, her stepmother forbid her from going with her brothers to collect garbage, because she says Shadia is now old enough to start learning housework to prepare for marriage.
As for Raef, who came with his family from al-Hussienia to al-Barde too, he says: “I quit school from the second grade, I was lazy [he laughs], and I don’t like school anyway, and I don’t like this job either, but I had to work after my father’s car was stolen. My father was a taxi driver, and his car was our source of living, and he was once beaten by the police before us because they accused him of joining the Free Army, and they then found out that he was innocent of this charge.”
Raef adds: “My father became too afraid to leave home, he feared that if he did, he might be accused again or get taken at army checkpoints. I must work so we can eat.
“Sometimes I find good things and I wonder why people threw them away. Once I found a new pair of trousers. The pocket was torn a little, so my mother sewed it for me and I’ve been wearing them since last year,” he said.
Raef’s father has a drinking problem and gets rough with his mother and younger brothers. But he rarely beats Raef, because his foraging brings the family a trickle of income. The family lives in a small room in an unfinished building; they can’t afford more space.
The children foraging through dumpsters have little access to learning, playing and living in a safe and clean environment. And a stronger scavenger can assault them, robbing their things that they’ve been collecting all day, in which case they go home empty-handed.
“They live by the laws of the streets, the strongest among them rules, and they often pay ‘a tax,’ and normally it’s an amount of money, or a gift offered regularly to someone who protects them in one way or another,” said Manal, a Syrian social worker based in Damascus.
“We call those children street kids, because even though they have families to go to at the end of the day, they are deprived of family care.”
“Previously there used to be ‘anti-begging and unemployment’ patrols. They used to catch these children and investigate their parents or whoever encouraged them to perform this job,” said Adel, an attorney in Damascus. “But now with the current crisis, they became too many, and even if they do catch them, eventually they let them go without tackling the issue at its root cause.”
An entire generation of Syrian children are losing their basic rights. They’re being violated even by those who were supposed to protect them. They carry both psychological and physical scars that will have consequences for the country over many years to come.