My jog along the beach walkway downtown Beirut was over and I was walking back to our guesthouse. Suddenly I heard a small tap on my shoulder. I turned around and next to me was a small child, with long, a little matted hair, and very dirty clothes. She stretched her hand out for me to put something into it.
I smiled at her and put some money into her dirty hand. Let’s call her Amira. Then I kept walking. A few minutes later, another tap. I looked around, and another child, a little taller, was looking at me. She was perhaps 13. Let’s call her Sara. She pointed to her mouth, indicating she was hungry. I thought: I can’t give her money. I just gave money to a child. But Sara persisted. She looked like she was going to cry. I thought: What if it was my daughter? So I said to her: “Let’s go and get you some food.” She smiled at me. As we walked down the sidewalk it was obvious she knew exactly where we were going. After a few seconds Amira joined us. It turned out, they were sisters. I took their hands in mine and we walked. It was dark, rainy and cold.
Suddenly Sara’s flip-flops broke. Her bare feet had been protected just by a pair of floppy flip-flops. Now she had to walk bare-feet. She looked devastated.
In a distance I saw a grocery store and realised this is where we were headed.
Inside the market I gave the girls a shopping basket each and told them to fill it. The looks in their eyes as we walked down the isles I will never forget. They were so excited putting canned tuna, instant coffee and Nutella in their baskets. They got cheese and bread and potato chips. They threw in some hotdogs and crackers. When we walked by the diapers they started jumping up and down, smiling and pointing. I wasn’t sure why they were so excited, but picked the biggest bag of diapers. Then we went to pay and filled many bags with groceries. They couldn’t carry it all, so I had to help.
Outside the store were more kids. They were also hungry and asked if I could take them to the grocery store too. But I couldn’t. I kept walking with my girls. We rounded a street corner and they started running and shouted to somebody at a distance. Their mother. She was sitting, dressed in black, on the sidewalk holding a little baby. Her face was hollow. She looked like she was sick. The baby had bright eyes and looked at me as if he was Jesus. I cried. I held the baby in my arms and talked to him. I said: You will be OK. You are so beautiful. Look at me. You are loved. He smiled at me, and I cried more. Because I cannot guarantee that his future will be anything else than begging on the streets, like his sisters.
“Let’s go and get you shoes,” I said. We got up from the sidewalk and walked to a store where they had shoes. The store owner looked at my friend with grumpy eyes. Beggar. Refugee. Nuisance. “I want to buy her shoes. She is poor and cold. Help me.” I said to him. “I know there are many beggars here, but they need help.” The man warmed up to me and said: “Yes, yes, it is a good thing. Here are some shoes.” And then, suddenly, there was another child there, barefoot too. “Can I buy shoes for one, and not for the other,” I wondered. And decided, no, I can’t. So I bought two pairs of shoes. The girls all went back to where the sick mother and the bright-eyed baby were.
Then a young man-boy came to me and said he was cold and had no jacket. I said I really couldn’t help him, that I had helped so many already. But he kept talking about being cold and having no family, and I couldn’t stand thinking about it. So I told him to go with me to the jacket store. We bought him a jacket that he liked.
We walked outside the store. I felt dizzy. I said goodbye to the man-boy and ran back to my guesthouse.
They are refugees from Syria, and without committing any crime at all, they have been reduced to cold, hungry beggars on the street of a country that is not their own. I cannot think of one single redeeming factor in the lives they are living. But I will forever cherish watching two young girls running excitedly towards their sick mother, telling her they got her coffee and diapers for the baby.