I told my family last night that I was thinking of dressing and acting like a beggar in one of the traffic lights in Erbil to go deep into the issue, since it is Ramadan more of them are filling the traffic lights and I am always doubtful to pay them or not. So I gave myself a mission: spend a day with beggars!
“Tomorrow is the only off day I have at work and I don’t have a report for this week’s issue of the paper. So I am going to do it.”
Of course my mum thought I was out of my mind, saying “why don’t you make us Ftoor instead” (dinner to break the fast with) but dad understood where I was coming from.
No. I did not dress like a beggar, but instead I put on a scarf (I am after all fasting and it is Ramadan) took a telescope, camera, pens, notepad and dad had called one of my cousins who came knocking at the door 9 a.m. sharp.
I was ready. I planned to spy on the beggars the entire day and my cousin was going to be there to a) take pictures and b) so dad doesn’t worry about me being frightened or worse eaten.
My morning with the beggars was definitely a worthy experience.
Y.M. (the cousin): “I have left my wife and kids so you can talk to beggars. Just write my name and I will tell you their stories,”
Me: “Will you come or shall I call someone else to come with me?”
Y.M.: “Fine, where do you want to go?”
Me: “A Traffic light, a place where I can find them.”
I could tell as we were driving, he was also interested in what we might come across. So we went to one of the many traffic lights in Erbil and saw on each side of the lights a number of beggars. We parked at a distance and did some spying, (never realized I was born to be a detective!) After 10 minutes I had seen enough, I was out the car and went to meet my suspects.
Of course the beggars refused to speak to me, so I lied a few lies (lying for a good cause – even if you’re fasting – is not sinful… is it?) and I promised to give them money in return after we had finished our conversation. So we crossed the road to the park and sat under the shade for what was going to be a long conversation. I tried to be as casual as possible, and became friends (yes, friends) with them before I went into the details of their lives.
Suspect 1: I realized she lied to me after she said one of her kids was 8 years old and she got married after the fall of the regime. I asked if it was from a different husband or if she was pregnant before her marriage but she said no. From the human biology that I remember from school days this did not make sense, so I knew I should be cautious with this one.
Khadija only spoke Kurdish with me, but I later realized her Arabic was very fluent and so was another language she spoke, which I could not understand a single word from. But she was from Mosul, and said they escaped the insecurity in the area – fleeing to Erbil.
Not realizing I knew Arabic too well she told one of her friends (or relatives, I didn’t get the family connection there, but it was clear she knew the other beggars with her) “this one is rich, she paid me $–!” Obviously with the Arabic word ‘Haya’ she was referring to me.
She has three children at home and the baby in her arms is only 3 months old. She brings the baby with her when she begs. I asked why she does not leave the little one at home, “she drinks my milk, I can’t leave her” she told me, though it is clear people are more sympathetic with a baby in her hands and it is a tactic.
As she told me about her living conditions, her husband is a government employee – cleaner – and they live in a house with her mother-in-law. The family of six receive food rations from the government and she seems to earn at least 15 000 to 20 000 (ID) a day, I did some mathematics in my head and on average she collects about $400 a month from her begging.
I must mention this is part time, 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. job.
The ones I spoke to and met let me in on their secret. Every two days they go to a new traffic light.
She says they will not go to where there are police because they will take them to Shekhala (a place near the Erbil Citadel) where there is a shelter and the securities keep them there until past midnight. Although it is clear that is not holding the beggars from going out again the next morning. They see it as their jobs. But I could tell they do not do it because they enjoy it, but they think they have to in order to survive. What bothered me about Khadija was that I told her I have found a job for her (really, If she accepted I would have definitely searched for a job for her) somewhere appropriate but she said she will not work and refused the job offer, saying “I have a baby.” When I told her she can take the little one with her she said, “I can’t my health is not good, it is difficult to work.” I wanted to say a lot, but realized this was about her and not me. So I just listened instead.
By begging Khadija earns enough to make a living, pay her rent (which she says is 160 000 ID), buy food but as she said “I have no money for new clothes for the kids for Jezhn”** and “what I earn in begging is only enough for less than a day.”
She swore many times when I asked her if she was telling the truth, and she repeated that she was fasting and had no option but to beg under the warm sun.
Khosga*, however, was a 14-year-old girl that brought tears to my eyes. Her story was believable, and I believed every word of it. Her story was touching. But I later learned her brothers and sisters also beg, some in the same traffic and those who are not with her she knows exactly where and when they are begging.
Speaking to the girls privately as we walked off, I asked if they are sexually harassed and they admitted that they hear hurtful words and requests from certain drivers. I made sure to do my part and gave them the best of advice that I could. Not as a journalist or a reporter, but an individual who cares about young people, and is sympathetic towards the vulnerable.
I promised I will search for a job for Khosga, as she vowed to me that if she works she will no longer beg. At 14, there is more to her life than to knock on car windows asking for money. I will rescue her.
I learned some of these people are real beggars with no other option, and for others it is pure laziness and has, to a degree, become a business, a business that they are well acquainted with.
I will not talk about Khosga’s heart aching story in this blog entry, as I will report on it in this week’s issue of the Kurdish Globe, and I will put it on the blog after its publication.
For the past week every time I come back from work there is a lady (covering her face) in the exact same traffic light. I think that is what prompted me to go on this mission because I always have money in a small Quran I place in the car, and I do not hesitate to give 1 000 ID or 2 000 ID but the entire week the same lady, at the same spot and at the same time raised suspensions, “does she deserve it or not?” I would ask myself everyday as I reached to my purse.
Unfortunately, begging is an issue in our society that we must tackle before it spreads further.
The government is doing its part in catching the beggars and putting them in a shelter for the rest of the day before letting them go again, but that is not tackling the problem as they are back on the streets the next day.
Some sell tissues, little Qurans, car-fragrance or chewing gum in traffic lights, others like Khosga and Khadija who I spent my morning with just take out their hands, pray for you and beg that you give them some money.
So, next time I see someone at the traffic light, will I pay them or no? I will. Even though I know they will and can survive without it. But I feel guilty driving pass in an air-conditioned car as they knock on windows under 45 degree heat. If not for the mother, then for the sake of the little child, but I know the government is requesting that no one pays them so that they stop the begging and find a job instead (which is why most of them say that they have a disease).
If anyone happens to have a solution, please let me know. I am thinking of raising the matter and search for method to tackle this problem. If you are interested to help, then I beg you.
* The names have been changed
** Jezhn is what Kurds refer to Eid, or the celebration to mark the end of fasting and the holy month of Ramadan.