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Lebanon's Children Struggle On

Although the guns have fallen silent, growing numbers of foundlings and street children signal deep distress

Farah is a happy, healthy child of 16 months who brings smiles to the faces of the staff as she toddles around the nursery at the Islamic Orphanage in Beirut.

When she was just a few days old, she was found in a plastic sack on a garbage heap on a west Beirut street corner. She had been badly bitten by the rats or cats which live off the garbage. She needed two months of hospital care before being released to the orphanage.

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"I have worked here for 25 years, and I am a professional, but I have to admit I cried when I first saw Farah," says Berlant Aqqad, the orphanage's deputy director.

The orphanage is currently receiving a fresh wave of foundlings, babies simply abandoned in the street or, like Farah, dumped on garbage heaps. Over the past three months, 18 new arrivals have been taken in.

Foundlings, orphans, the handicapped and mentally retarded, a growing number of street children, and incidences of child prostitution, provide the most obvious evidence that the children of Lebanon are still in need, even though the guns have largely fallen silent.

For many ordinary people, relative peace has brought not prosperity, but increasingly dire poverty, with prices spiraling way beyond their means.

Nahida Qaisi, director of the Islamic Orphanage, believes that worsening economic and social conditions are one of the factors behind the new spate of abandoned babies.

While the institution has been taking in a trickle of foundlings for years, she points to a new phenomenon in addition to the increase in numbers - the arrival of well-nourished babies as old as six months, and also a growing number of abandoned retarded children. In the past, virtually all foundlings were newborn babies.

"Nisrine was four months old when she came to us, and Amer was six months, both of them normal children," Mrs. Qaisi says. "I wonder how the parents, who had this baby for six months, and were feeding him and giving him love and giving him a home, could leave him in the street like that. This is a new problem."

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Since they have no identity and no known relatives, many of the foundlings are adopted by childless families. But the orphanage houses and cares for some 4,500 parentless, handicapped, or destitute children. It is one of hundreds of private institutions left by the beleaguered state to cope with the massive fallout from 16 years of civil strife.

In the absense of reliable statistics for any of the major social problems, nobody knows how many orphans there are in Lebanon. Some estimates put the figure as high as 100,000.

There are about 80 orphanages, mainly concentrated in and around Beirut. A recent report by a major international agency described conditions in some of them as "horrific," with no educational or recreational facilities, and low standards of nutrition and hygiene, including infestations of vermin.

Clearly, the Islamic Orphanage, which is endowed by the Sunni Muslim establishment, does not fall into that category. Nor does the Imam al-Khoi orphanage, just south of Beirut, which is run by a foundation presided over by Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah - the man often described as the spiritual mentor of the pro-Iranian Hizbullah. The 870 children there come mainly from the Shiite community.

"I have been here for five years, and I am very happy," says 12-year-old Jawad Zein, beaming broadly and speaking comfortably in English. "I come from Baalbek. I am here because my father died of heart disease and my mother is in the hospital."

The children, aged between 4 and 17 years, are given a full education in line with the national curriculum, with vocational workshops for the less academically inclined. The ethos is Islamic, but not oppressively so. Much stress is laid on sports and other recreational activities, and the orphans have regular stays with whatever family they still have.

"The idea is to keep them in touch with society, not to isolate them," says the director, Khodr Dabbous. "In addition to their family visits and stays, we take them on frequent outings to shops, banks, the airport, so they can see how things work."

Dr. Dabbous says the arrival of relative peace has made it possible to expand the horizons of the orphans.

"Twice a year, we invite 500 children from all the orphanages in Lebanon - Christians, Muslims, and Druze all together - and we lay on entertainment for them," he says.

"They really enjoy it, especially the Christians. With the war ended and the roads reopened, it's the first time they have been here to the Muslim area. Now we have good relations with their administration, and we exchange expertise with them. After all, an orphan isn't a Christian or a Muslim, he is an orphan."

"The opening of the roads has made it possible to get in contact with people and organizations in other areas which were not permissible before," agrees Nahla Ghandour, who runs a kindergarten for handicapped Lebanese and Palestinian children in the Mar Elias refugee camp. "This has already made it possible for us to transfer children to other facilities when appropriate."

Ms. Ghandour says the ending of hostilities has also helped the task of caring for handicapped children by halting the constant disruptions of the war years.

"There is more continuity, so you can start something with a fair idea that the process will not be interrupted," she says. "This is vital in working with our children, because the repetition of things and gradual evaluation are very important."

But in other respects, she says, things have not improved. Low income parents remain preoccupied with other problems, and unable to give their handicapped children the care they need.

A study carried out five years ago by the American University of Beirut concluded that the level of facilities for handicapped children was "apallingly low." The mentally handicapped - probably the second largest category of disabled children - were particularly poorly provided for, accorded only a handful of low-quality centers.

Little has changed since then, except that the number of children in need has grown. Again, there are no reliable statistics, and such figures as do exist are usually many years out of date.

Worsening economic and social conditions lead some pediatricians to maintain that the overall situation of children is worse now than it was when hostilities were raging.

"The bombardments have stopped, but the situation has not improved at all," says Muhammad Arab, who treats children at the Iranian-funded Rasoul al-Aatham hospital in Beirut's impoverished, mainly Shiite southern suburbs.

"Economically and socially, it is worse than before, because during the war we had aid from outside, but now we have none," Dr. Arab adds. "Maybe they think that we have everything we need now, but we don't; we have nothing.... Many children have died because they cannot afford to go to the hospital."

The same kind of social degradation that leads people to abandon babies in the streets is visible behind another problem that is attracting increasing attention - the growing number of street children who spend their day begging, selling chewing gum, or cleaning car windshields when they should - even under Lebanese law - be in school.

Fatima, who is nine, and her 11-year-old brother Ahmad had never been to school until they were taken in hand recently by Rim Haddad, a volunteer social worker.

"When I first found them, they were living with their father in a small, squalid room, full of rats, with no kitchen or bathroom," Ms. Haddad says. "They were very dirty, very untidy, and very undernourished. The father, an out-of-work Syrian barber who has been here for 15 years, sends them down into the streets, where the girl sells gum while the boy wipes windshields."

"I know another man who has about a dozen kids, and he sends them all out to the streets," she adds. "He makes enough out of them to afford two cars and to live in a nice apartment."

The children are good at their work - they have to be, since they may be beaten by their parents or controllers if they fail to sell their quota of gum. One boy with an amputated arm tugs consciences outside Goodies, a luxury delicatessen where the well-off can buy anything from whole Scottish salmon to best Iranian caviar.

"Many of the children are organized and exploited by gangs, who take them in the morning in vans and distribute them around the main streets," says Aida Jammal of UNICEF. "But there are also parents who may be very poor or disabled, and who send the children out because they really need the income."

Again, nobody knows the real size of the problem. So the Interior Ministry, together with a number of nongovernmental organizations, is planning to spend a week sending plainclothes policemen and social workers to round up the street children just for questioning, so the problem can at least be quantified.

Actually dealing with the issue is another matter, given the mass of other problems underlying it. The children themselves cannot simply be put directly in normal schools, since they are completely uneducated and also have behavioural problems. There is no facility at present for the kind of rehabilitation work needed.

Closely related is the problem of child prostitution, which is also attracting growing concern. On Jan. 13, Beirut police arrested six girls aged between 13 and 15 who had been working the city's seafront for the past two years.

All these problems represent only the most visible tip of a very large iceberg, in terms of what the war and its aftermath have done to a generation of children who have grown up knowing only conflict and upheaval.

"In the 16 years of war, not a single school year was completed without disruption," says Anni Kanafani, who has worked with a series of kindergartens in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon since 1974. "This means that this generation has been lost. Many of the young men of course became fighters. Those who did not, lost their education because the schools were closed. Many of them you could consider only semiliterate."

Even middle class children who managed to finish school or university courses did not always escape the traumas of war. Doctors and psychiatrists say their clinics are flooded by children with psychosomatic ailments or emotional disturbances.

"We need a child psychiatrist in every school," says Wali Merhej, a German pediatrician and child psychologist who has treated children in Lebanon for 25 years. "The children are definitely the ones who suffered the most from the war, because they are not emotionally settled."

Dr. Merhej and others say many children suffer from fear, anxiety, aggressive behavior, withdrawal, depression, and insomnia as a result of war traumas. She reports cases of stammering, tongue-biting, and even acute schizophrenia among children exposed to disturbing events.

A recent study by Mona Maqsoud of Columbia University indicated that 96 percent of children in Beirut had been exposed to at least one traumatic event, and that many had experienced five or six kinds of trauma.

All this has taken its toll even on the best brought up children.

"I can't tell you how aggressive my younger two children are," says Ms. Jammal of UNICEF. "They have had to become aggressive to survive and stand up for themselves in an aggressive environment."

To try to undo some of the damage and break down barriers of prejudice and communal estrangement erected by the war, UNICEF is laying great emphasis on an Education for Peace program in Lebanon, under which 5,000 youth leaders have been trained as "agents for peace."

"What is needed is to introduce into our education system techniques, skills, aptitudes, and knowledge on how to understand and overcome a problem by means other than violence," says Anna Mansour of UNICEF.

"The lessons learned from Lebanon could definitely be relevant in helping young people in other conflict situations, such as Yugoslavia, avoid falling into the same trap," she added.

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