By Teresa Sfeir
The boy seemed to be no more than twelve the first time he tapped on my car window and asked for money as I waited at an intersection. The children standing next to him were even younger. The memory is almost amusing—and you might be wondering what amusement can be found in so gray a picture. It was in how a friendship had formed between us and how that boy’s countenance had changed from a dehumanized dejection to a playful familiarity with each time he tapped on my window. At some point, I stopped seeing him around, yet the sight of child beggars has always been part of Beirut.
There is an ongoing debate about whether one must heed the pleas of these street children as they beg for money. Some say the money would simply go to the trafficking ringleaders. Some say they would rather give money to the children and save them from the harsh punishment awaiting them at the end of the day if they return with “low earnings.”
Begging is only a tip of the iceberg. You don’t have to go far to spot a child loosening wheel nuts at a car mechanic, his face smeared with dirty engine oil, another carrying crates at a greengrocer’s and yet another dehydrated as she harvests crops beneath the scorching sun. Children work for plumbers, shopkeepers, and bakers. They do construction and farming work, and collect plastic from garbage containers. It’s a sad state of affairs—a seemingly incurable phenomenon taking place in Lebanon and other impoverished countries. But, we have become quite desensitized to it.
According to UNICEF, child exploitation in all its forms has become much more widespread in Lebanon since the economic crisis started in 2019. The November 2021 report details alarming statistics about how the crisis has amplified children’s vulnerability, leaving them with no choice but to work or deal with other threats such as child marriage, trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Child exploitation isn’t anything new, and the literature on the topic is prolific. I find William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper”, from his poetry collection entitled Songs of Innocence and Experience, quite poignant in its depiction of child exploitation in 18th century England, and there is much to learn from it in our Lebanese context today.
In late-18th century England, small boys—sometimes no older than five—were employed to climb up chimneys, clean them with a brush and collect soot in bags. These boys were often sold to their masters by their own parents. They were miserably treated and often suffered from respiratory diseases and physical deformities due to squatting for a long time. Sometimes, they even got stuck in chimneys and died.
“The Chimney Sweeper” is told from the standpoint of a young sweeper who has been sold into labor by his father. In one of the poems, the speaker tells the story of a new recruit named Tom Dacre. After he tries to make Tom feel better for having his head shaved, Tom dreams of an angel who sets the chimney sweepers free allowing them to play in green fields and ascend to heaven. But, alas, Tom wakes up the next day to his dreary reality where he cannot see the sun. He cannot wash in the river. He cannot play because he has no time to spare.
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
While the speaker tries to make sense of the cruelties committed against him and his peers in one poem, his tone completely changes in another. He refers to himself as a “thing”, feeling deprived of his humanity. Passersby aloofly ask him about his parents’ whereabouts, condemning them for selling off their child at so young an age. However, he refuses to look defeated, so he feigns happiness, and he smiles. But because he smiles, people think they have done him no wrong. They exploit him then go to church to praise God.
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying “weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? say?”
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.”
“The Chimney Sweeper” is a loud cry against those who have made their heaven out of the children’s misery. The angel in Tom’s dream is a symbol of the Church. The children had secretly hoped that the Church would save them from the exploitation. However, at the end of the dream, the angel tells Tom that, if he remains obedient and goes on cleaning chimneys, he will please God and be in eternal joy.
At the time of this poem, the Church of England was an integral part of the ”establishment.” This meant that it had the authority to do something about injustice, but according to Blake, it was an accomplice with the sweeping industry masters instead. Would the Church in Lebanon unknowingly become an accomplice with those who exploit children if it keeps silent today?
God’s genuine concern for the vulnerable and oppressed is evident in the Bible. The book of Isaiah, for instance, is preoccupied with justice and mercy. In its first chapter, the Lord rebukes the people of Judah, not because they had failed in keeping religious observances, but because they were dealing unjustly with the helpless. God had come to loathe their meaningless displays of piety.
“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow, (Is. 1:17 NIV)” He tells them.
Because the economic crisis is so severe, salaries have lost their value, and while the public sector is dissolving, pandemic restrictions have taken their toll on Lebanese schools and students. Children are losing access to education. More and more, we see children dropping out of school. Nadia Khouri, who is part of the Leadership Team of Beirut-based Tahaddi, a non-governmental organization dedicated to fighting poverty, shared some pertinent insights on the current situation:
Given the desperation, children are seen as a means of support for families. It is an unfortunate coping mechanism. We may have a tendency to blame the poor wondering how they would resort to this. Instead, I am often reminded of the words of Father Gregory Boyle that we must seek ‘a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.’
Before the crisis, there were pockets of poverty in Lebanon, like where Tahaddi works to provide education, health and relief aid. In partnership with other agencies, Tahaddi provides financial subsidies to families to help them meet their daily needs so children are able to resume their education. Today, NGOs cannot solve the problem on their own because it has become widespread nationally and calls for a larger-scale solution.
Nadia suggested, “The global Church community has an important opportunity to help Lebanon’s children today through supporting the extensive network of Christian schools which exists across the country—reaching villages and towns from north to south—so they can ensure teachers are receiving living wages, facilities are maintained and tuition fees are not a barrier.” She also stressed that when poverty moves from one generation to the next, it is very hard to reverse. “Without education, the future is bleak. We are at a point where something can still be done, but we need to act quickly.”
Some of my fondest memories are of having once had the opportunity to be with children who would, at some point, inevitably leave school and take up some menial job to support their families. What brave souls, having had to endure a lot much harsher than my own, but as much as I admired their strength, I could not ignore the gnawing fact that I could not help them take hold of what I once had.
Where are these children’s parents? The answer is complex, but we can at least begin to answer the question, “Where is the Church?”—whether it be through raising awareness or supporting Lebanese schools. Perhaps, local churches could even adopt a few families for a number of years so that their children are in school. Whatever the means, the young chimney sweepers await their angel.
Teresa is Communication and Editing Officer for the Department of Development and Partner Relations. She finds inspiration for current times in the literature of past times.