BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian teenager with dark curly hair spends his days hanging around a busy thoroughfare in western Beirut, chasing motorists and following shoppers to ask for money. Further down on Hamra Street, his mother and three younger siblings also have their spots, begging for a living.
Mohammad Hussein, 13, is among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who fled their country's devastating civil war, now in its sixth year, for refuge next door in tiny Lebanon. Many of the youngest are now out of school and have to work or beg to support their families.
Their plight is one of the most visible signs of the unprecedented refugee crisis that has put an immense strain on neighboring Mideast countries and destabilized Europe. On shopping streets, roundabouts and traffic lights in Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon, child beggars are seen, pressing their small faces against car windows, stretching their hands out for money or selling chewing gum or flowers for a few coins.
"I wish I could go back to school, I liked school when I was in Syria," Hussein says. "But now I can't, I am the eldest and I must support my mother and sisters."
Not only is begging dangerous — Hussein was recently detained by police for 10 days — but he also sometimes has to suffer insults from strangers he begs from.
"Some people ... curse me and my people and my country," he says.
Lebanon is home to more than 1 million registered Syrian refugees — equal to about a quarter of the Mediterranean country's 4.5 million people. It's the highest refugee population in the world per capita. Lebanon says that another half a million Syrians live in the country as well, unregistered, and officials say their presence has generated a severe burden that Lebanon can no longer handle alone.
A study published last year by the International Labor Organization, UNICEF and the Save the Children charity found that more than 1,500 children live or work on Lebanon's streets, nearly three quarters of them Syrians who mostly beg for money or sell trinkets by the roadside.
Hussein's family fled their home in the mountains of Syria's Latakia province three years ago. He says he is happy in Lebanon but wishes he could go back to play with his neighborhood friends.
In Beirut, the teen says he makes between 15 and 20 dollars a day, depending on his luck that day.
"Nobody gives me work because I am too young," he says. "This way I can make more money than if I had a job."
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