Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Wartime Epidemic of Begging

Both young and old are forced to survive as best they can.
By Maha al-Ahmad

Gumendar is 60 but looks much older, her face wrinkled by the trauma of the years of conflict.

Originally from the village of al-Jabin in the Hama countryside, she spends her days wandering the streets of Kafr Nabl begging for whatever charity people can spare.

“I wasn’t a beggar before the war,” she explained. “I lived a respectable life in al-Jabin. My family and I used to harvest fruit and earned enough money from this to live decently.”

But everything changed after Gumendar’s husband died and the war reached her home village.

“My two daughters and I were forced to go to the village of Shulin in the Idlib countryside after the regime army entered our own village,” she continued. “We had to leave our house and all our possessions behind.”

Gumendar, who is illiterate, failed to find any kind of work. She was left with no choice but to panhandle to support herself and her family.

Street begging has become a common sight in Syria. The war has led to displacement, poverty, high prices and rising numbers of families robbed of their breadwinners. Both young and old are forced to survive as best they can.

Murhaf, a skinny 12 year-old from the village of Ain Larouz in the Idlib countryside, is dressed in rags that barely protect him from the cold.

Gazing at passersby with his sad, dark eyes, he repeats, “Good people, give me money for God’s sake.”

Murhaf said that he had 12 brothers and sisters and that his parents had sent him onto the streets to help support the large family.

“When I ask my father to give me money to buy something for me, he says that he doesn’t have any money and that what we earn is barely enough to buy bread for me and my siblings,” he said.

The consequences of such a life can be long-lasting. Abdul Aziz, a 65 year-old psychology and civics lecturer from Kafr Nabl, warned that forcing children to beg could have devastating consequences for them in adulthood.

“It’s better and less harmful for parents to encourage their children to work rather than making them beg for a living. When children beg, their ambitions are shattered, and they also feel worthless and inferior.”

Issam, an 11 year-old from the town of Bleen in the Hama countryside, cried as he described how he spent his days knocking on the doors of houses, asking people to fill an empty soft drinks can with olive oil. He takes the oil back home to his mother and brothers.

Crying, he said, “I am not a beggar, but I do ask for help in order to survive.”

Issam recounted how his family had been ripped apart after his grandfather’s house was destroyed in a missile strike.

He continued, “My father was at my grandfather’s house so he died too. My mother, siblings and I remained without a breadwinner or any source of income.”

Issam refused to have his photo taken, explaining,  “I don’t want anyone to take a picture of me in case my cousins see me on Facebook and make fun of me because I’m begging. I make sure to only beg far from my village.”

Some women whose husbands are away fighting say they also struggle to make ends meet.

Um Mustafa, a 30-year-old woman displaced from Hama, has two children with special needs and lives in complete poverty. Her husband is part of a rebel battalion stationed far away.

“I visit the houses of people I know and ask them for things like heating oil and some food for my disabled children,” she said. “That’s not really begging.”

Um Mustafa said that she too had lived a good life before the war displaced her from her home in the Hama countryside. Now, the house she and her children live in is falling to pieces, with rainwater seeping through the cracks in the walls.

“My husband’s salary from the battalion he is fighting with isn’t enough to last the entire month,” she said.

Not everyone responds sympathetically to the plight of beggars.

His back curved and moving painfully slowly, 65-year-old Osman from the town of Baqala, south of Kafr Nabl, carries a cotton bag which he asks people to fill with whatever they can for him.

After he passed by, 50-year-old Mazen scoffed at his performance and said that he was not really poor.

“This man is a liar, he doesn’t need money but instead took up begging as a profession, even before the revolution,” Mazen said. “He is exploiting the beggars who are really in need during the conditions of war and the siege of the regime on many Syrian areas”.

Another local man, Abu Walid, 60, said that he refused to help beggars “because they are liars,” adding that “some people have got used to the habit of begging and found it to be an easy way to earn money”.

But Islamic scholar Sheikh Mohammed, 70, said that it was not down to the individual to make such judgements.

“According to Sharia, it’s forbidden to refuse to help beggars in case they are really in need.”  

Said, a 43 year-old official at Kafr Nabl’s local council , said that they were working with a variety of charities to try and support impoverished people. But he added that it was impossible to provide enough aid to support them all.

Others are happy to contribute. Abu Majid, a 60 year-old merchant who works in the Kafr Nabl market, said he was always ready to help beggars and give them goods for free.

“If not for the war, the numbers of beggars wouldn’t have increased,” he said sadly. “Us Syrian people are known for our dignity, but the war has destroyed everything, and we can only look to God for help.

“We hope that the war will end, that the country will return to normal, that our children go back to school, that our financial situation improves and that we can unite to help every needy person in a time of peace instead of in a time of war.”