Image by Katrine Dige Houmøller

Scavenging for Survival: The Story of Seven Refugee Boys Battling Poverty

It’s a typical midsummer day in Beirut. The blazing sun hangs high over Tariq El Jdideh, and the brothers Mohammad, Abdallah, and Ibrahim from Sabra are out as usual, scouring through garbage bins under the relentless sun.

Joining them are Fadi, Jumah, and Mohammad. They all share a common plight. These boys are refugees within Lebanon, having fled Syria because of the civil war. They don’t attend school, instead spending their days, from dawn till dusk, scouring for plastic, aluminum, or anything they can gather and sell to acquire the necessities of food and water.

“I go through the trash, collect things, and sell them to make money because my family and I are in need,” says 13-year-old Jumah from Syria.

From left to right: Fadi (11), Jumah (13), Mohammad (13), Ibrahim (6), Mohammad (7), and Abdallah (8) in Tariq El Jdideh on Tuesday, July 2. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

The economic downturn has had a severe impact on the approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees who fled across the border to escape the Syrian civil war. 

The United Nations estimates that 90 percent of this refugee community lives in extreme poverty.

Threefold increase in poverty

Poverty in Lebanon has more than tripled in the past decade, according to the World Bank’s latest report from May 2024, titled ‘Lebanon Poverty and Equity Assessment.’ The report reveals that the proportion of the country’s population living below the poverty line has soared to 44 percent.

In 2022, the poverty rate among Lebanese was 33 percent, while it was 87 percent among Syrians residing in Lebanon during the same period.

15-year-old Mahmoud from Syria scavenges for plastic in Ain El Remmaneh, Beirut, on Tuesday, July 2. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

However, when considering factors such as access to electricity, education, and income, often referred to as “multidimensional poverty,” the researchers found that 73 percent of Lebanese and 100 percent of non-Lebanese residents were classified as poor.

The number of children aged five to 17 engaged in child labor doubled between 2019 and 2021, with approximately 5 percent of Syrian minors in Lebanon working, according to a report by several UN agencies published in 2022.

Ghobeiry in Beirut on Tuesday, July 2. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Earnings from plastic

From early morning until evening, each of the six Syrian boys earns between 200,000 to 400,000 LBP per day, as told by 13-year-old Mohammad. Along with his older brother, who works as a shepherd, they support their mother and four sisters with these earnings. This amount equates to approximately $2 to $5 on the informal currency market.

15-year-old Mahmoud from Syria in Ain El Remmaneh on Tuesday, July 2. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

The boys search diligently for the most valuable items they can find in the garbage:

“Plastic, plastic, plastic!” say the two brothers Mohammad, 7 years old, and Abdallah, 8 years old, simultaneously.

They earn 15,000 LBP per kilogram of plastic, 20,000 LBP per kilogram of iron, and up to 700,000 LBP per kilogram for copper or aluminum cables. This information is provided by the owner of a local business that collects materials from these young boys in the area.

An office in Ghobeiry where people exchange plastic, iron, and other items for money. Tuesday, July 2. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Payment to enter family houses

According to multiple locals in Tariq El Jdideh, many young boys are not welcomed back into their family homes unless they return with money. At the end of the day, the boys hand over the meager earnings they have collected to their parents, ensuring that they at least have a roof over their heads for another night.

However, some locals claim that many of these parents prioritize purchasing illegal substances, such as drugs, over providing sustenance for their children. Left to their own devices, the youngsters subsist on scraps salvaged from trash bins or food offered by passersby on the streets.

“We find food in the trash so we can eat two-three times a day,” say the brothers Abdallah and Mohammad.

Ibrahim, Mohammad, and Abdallah in Tariq El Jdideh on Tuesday, July 2. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Future aspirations amidst survival challenges

A young man stops his car next to the six boys surrounding the trash bins in Tariq El Jdideh. He hands out one dollar, 100,000 LBP, or 50,000 LBP to some of them.

However, after Beirut Today had left the area briefly, multiple sources reported that the young man returned to the trash bins to reclaim his money from the boys. A practice the locals say is not uncommon.

Jumah and Mohammad in Tariq El Jdideh on Tuesday, July 2. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Despite these boys’ day-to-day struggles for survival, they hold onto dreams for the future.

“I’m dreaming of working as a mechanical engineer,” 13-year-old Mohammad promptly declares.

Similarly, 13-year-old Jumah doesn’t hesitate with his response, “I want to be a doctor.”

As the blazing sun persists over Tariq El Jdideh, the six Syrian boys decide to move on. They scan the trash bins of Tayouneh. The contents they find are crucial as they determine whether the boys will feel satiated by day’s end.