Ahmad, a 14-year-old shoeshine boy, was found dead two weeks ago. He was running from police who wanted to question him for a theft. Now activists want answers to shed light on the mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death.
In Beirut, little boys wriggle through the gaps between cars on the streets in the day and between adults sipping and smoking outside the bars at night.
They are invisible until their hands stretch out to sell roses or breath fresheners, or to simply beg for a little money. Some have become savvier over the years and have picked up greetings in German, French and English to entertain their prospective customers. To gain sympathy, they even respond to questions about the Syrian war and narrate their stories to whoever asks.
According to the International Rescue Committee [IRC] there are at least 1,500 such children, forced to leave school and give up any hope of a future. Hidden behind their act of entrepreneurship is their helplessness and a life fraught with daily threats to physical safety.
The case of the death of a 14-year-old Syrian boy, Ahmad al Zoubi, highlighted these risks.
Ahmad was a shoe-shiner. He visited Salaam mosque in Verdun in western Beirut almost every day looking for work.
Two weeks ago, he was found dead at the bottom of a six-storey ventilator shaft in a residential alley in the area.
Ahmad was missing for three days before his body was discovered by his family. First, they visited police stations and hospitals to search for him. When they could not locate him, they visited the mosque and asked to be shown the CCTV footage recorded on the camera installed outside, which had a view of the streets nearby.
The video revealed Ahmad trotting about on his daily business before he saw a municipal police vehicle spot him. He ran at once, visibly frightened, and moved into an alley while two policemen got out and chased him. The video clip then showed the policemen returning to the vehicle without the boy.
Could they not find Ahmad or did they see the boy fall to his death in fear and not do anything? That’s the question that has caused outrage in the country, which has otherwise been critical of the presence of a million-plus Syrian refugees.
His cousin, also called Ahmad, said that the family does not blame the police for killing the teenager but demands a thorough investigation.
“They detained him several times before and beat him up,” said his cousin. “He was petrified of them.”
In response to the tragedy, Ahmad´s cousin asks: “Can a child not be safe in Lebanon? Should he run in such fear from the police?”
Others accused the authorities of running a campaign to remove Syrian children from the streets.
Nasser Yassin, director of research at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute, and co-chair of the AUB4Refugees initiative, said police often pick up these children and detain them for hours if not days to dissuade them from begging or selling on the streets. He demanded an investigation to find out exactly how the boy fell and died. There is no video recording of the last minutes of Ahmad’s life.
“He was scared, he panicked and fell. But how did that happen? There must be a full investigation,” said Nasser.
He highlighted the need for revisiting the standard procedures adopted by the authorities when dealing with street children.
“There is an urgent need for the authorities to ensure that they are accompanied by social workers when they approach children to provide adequate support,” he explained.
In response to the death, the municipal police issued a statement and said they follow the law while arresting offenders and do so without any abuse or violence.
They said that they had suspected Ahmad of stealing a zakat, or charity box, from opposite a hotel in the city and merely wanted to speak to him.
No such box was recovered from near Ahmad.
Paul Donohoe of the IRC, which is currently staging an exhibition on the lives of street children in Beirut, said that Syrian children are especially vulnerable because their parents find it hard to obtain legal work in Lebanon and resort to depending on their children to earn.
“The Syrian refugee parents we speak with don’t want to send their children to work, but for many it is the only way they can afford to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads,” he said.
Lebanon’s crumbling economy, put under further pressure by the presence of Syrian refugees, isn’t charitable to the Lebanese either.
In Lebanese film Capernaum - nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category - the filmmaker Nadine Labaki profiles the ordeal of Zian, a 12-year-old Lebanese boy, forced to work in a shop to help his many siblings in a large family.
Ahmad too had seven siblings. He wanted to help his father who could barely earn a few dollars a day if he got any work at all.
In a scene in the film, Zian decides to impersonate a Syrian refugee to claim benefits from social workers. In real life, Ahmad was denied a chance to change his fate, mapped out by the Syrian war and the anti-refugee policies in Lebanon.
Seeking justice for Ahmad, activists in Beirut organised a protest. They demanded the municipality be held responsible and the policemen punished if they were found guilty of wrongdoing. They also asked for the authorities to reveal the process they follow to deal with street children and questioned how policemen could chase a boy without the presence of juvenile representatives from the social sector.