Saturday, August 08, 2009

Yemeni Kids Begging For Life in Saudi

Begging for life!
Hamid Al-Sulami | Arab News

DISTURBING TALE: A child begging at one of the streets in Jeddah. (AN photo by Ahmed Hashshad)

MAKKAH: Smuggling children from neighboring Yemen into Saudi Arabia to beg for money, especially during pilgrimage season and the holy month of Ramadan, is a rising phenomenon. Nobody really knows how many children are trafficked into the country and forced into bondage as child beggars. Estimates vary from a few dozen to as many as 10,000.

Whatever the number, it is recognized to be a problem that lies in the area of child exploitation and child labor. It is a violation of UN conventions on children’s rights, and it robs countless children of not just their childhood but adulthood as well, as they are kept out of school as virtual slaves to racketeers as slimy as the worst mafia captains. These overseers and criminals can even be the heartless fathers of these children.

Child begging rackets often involve a number of kids who are tossed out into the streets to beg or sell trinkets, forced to sleep on the street until they have accumulated an amount of money that is enough to keep them from being physically abused by their masters, and hopefully get a decent meal.

These kids can be seen begging in front of mosques or near gas stations and shops.

Yusuf Ali, 8, who was seen begging near a gas station in Jeddah, told Arab News that he was smuggled into the Kingdom a few months ago with a group of adults. His parents handed him off to a man who promised that the boy would find work in Saudi Arabia and send money home. “When I arrived in the Kingdom, a man named Abu Ayyoub placed me in front of this mosque and asked me to beg for money from the worshippers when they come out of the mosque after prayers,” said the boy. “He also asked me to beg at gas stations when it is not prayer time.”

The boy said his master takes about SR75 of the SR150 he usually makes in a day. He claims to live in a house he knew only as “Al-Izba” where several other beggars are housed. “I do not know when I can go back to mom,” he said in tears.

Ahmed Alami, a 10-year-old Yemeni boy begging at a rest house on the road to Makkah, said he lives alone in the nearby mountains. He says that he takes in about SR20 an hour, but half of that goes to the man to whom his father entrusted him. “My father sent me to Saudi Arabia to work with a friend of his in selling vegetables, but that man asked me to beg instead,” he said.

These stories are all too common on the streets in and around Jeddah. Most of the children are boys, but some are also girls. Mariam Salim, a girl who looked to be about 12, said she’s from a remote village in Yemen. “I have a family of seven members living in one room,” she told Arab News. “I send them whatever I make here.”

She was afraid to discuss her circumstances here. Near another gas station stood Omar Saleh, 12. At first he was apprehensive about speaking, but after a few minutes he told Arab News that he came here with his father and three brothers, walking and hitching rides from the Saudi-Yemen border.

“My father got a job and told us to beg,” said Saleh. “We’re professional beggars now.”

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