‘My cousin has decided to use the money for surgery,’ said Ali, a taxi driver. ‘She went and had her cheeks and lips puffed or whatever you call it.’ Ali shook his head in disapproval. Another passenger in the taxi chipped in.
I kept staring at the tall, lanky young man sitting across from me. ‘I don’t want money or food,’ he said, lowering his eyes. ‘But there is one thing I want more than anything. I have one dream and you’re the only person who can help me.’
At 24, Shadi was living alone in a rat-infested room with no electricity, running water or even a toilet nearby. Like his father, he was a squatter in a privately owned building. He searched the city dumpsters every night to find recyclable cartons or plastics to sell. He hadn’t eaten in days but refused to let me buy him lunch.
‘More than anything I want to learn English,’ he said. I continued to stare, stupefied.
‘Reem, you started me on this, remember?’ he said. ‘I loved school and hated my father for what he did. It’s too late for me to go back to school but not too late to keep learning. Please help me again.’
It was 13 years ago that I had first met him and his sister, begging on the streets of Beirut. Something in the little girl’s face caught my eye. Her eyes were partly hidden by long, jet-black hair and she peeked at me from behind her brother. Refusing to give them money, I offered to buy them lunch instead and we sat together, slowly getting to know each other. Our lunches became a daily rendezvous. The girl, Hala, was 9 and the boy, Shadi, 11. Neither had been to school. Their mother was dead and their father made them work the streets – just two of the many street children who appeared right after the 1975-90 war. They were squatting in a room that had once been a university dormitory. The father’s bloodshot eyes said much about his pastime. I was still in university and thought – as the young tend to – that I could save the world, beginning with these children.
So I spent all my free time with them.
I found a barrel of water in the rat-infested building in order to bathe them. I begged friends for clothes and talked a nearby theology school into providing lunch for them. Their father continued to send them to the streets. Worried, I would search for them in the middle of the night and find them huddled together. Turning to the law was useless. Except in cases of severe physical or sexual abuse, parents had the ultimate right when it came to their children. After many months, the father relented and allowed his daughter to attend a few hours of classes set up for illiterate children, so long as she begged on the streets afterwards. To my surprise, he allowed the boy to attend a boarding school. But never having been taught right from wrong, Shadi stole from school friends and bullied students. In desperation, I would travel the two hours to the school and beg him to stop. He didn’t. Almost two years later, the principal called me in.
‘This boy,’ he said as I braced myself for more complaints, ‘is highly intelligent.’ Shadi had managed not only to read and write but had caught up with his peers in just two years.
‘His conduct is beginning to change,’ continued the principal. ‘He’s calming down. He needs more time but he’ll get there and I think if he continues his education he’ll make something of himself.’
I was thrilled. But two weeks later, I got another call. Shadi’s father had taken him out of school. I looked all over Beirut for the children but they were gone. Disappointed, I chided myself for getting involved in the first place.
Years passed. I graduated, worked and got married. Every New Year’s Eve, exactly at midnight, I would get a call.
‘Happy New Year,’ a youthful voice would say. Before I could respond, the caller would hang up. Over time, the child’s voice changed into a teenage croak, then a young man’s tenor. Finally, a few months ago, the voice lingered.
‘Will you meet me somewhere?’ it asked hesitantly.
And now here I was, meeting Shadi again. Needless to say, he enrolled in English classes and came up with the highest scores. This time around, I didn’t feel thrilled at his success. Only extreme sadness at a wasted life. With his exceptional intelligence, Shadi could have amounted to something. I passed him a few times at night rummaging through the garbage or selling flowers to passers-by.
Now that I have a child of my own, I think miserably of a father who denied his children the few opportunities they could have had. The children’s picture – in their newly washed hair and clothes – still hangs in my home. Many times I find myself thinking of Hala, who has since become a prostitute and of Shadi, whose dream, amid the squalor he inhabits, is to learn English.