Three times a day, like clockwork, a young boy rings our doorbell and asks, “fi zbaalé?” Any garbage? He is one of 3 boys (and 6 children) who now live on the ground floor of the apartment building where we’re staying in Tripoli. The kids are Syrian refugee children, and their father, a migrant worker, is the building’s janitor.
The boys play and ride bikes in front of the building, open the elevator door for us, and, on rainy days, sweep water into the sewer drain. The girls mostly stay indoors; they occasionally serve tea to their father and the other neighbourhood janitors with whom he sits outside. (As I write this post, it occurs to me that some of the children might be the janitor’s nieces and nephews.) These girls and boys, like most Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, don’t attend school. According to a United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ report released last week, only 17.5 % of the Syrian refugee children in Lebanon are registered in public schools (53 % of the 5039 Syrian refugees in Lebanon are under 18).
The kids eat and sleep behind the mirrored door of the janitor’s ground-floor space. But beyond this, we know very little about them. What are their names? How did they get here? What do they miss from home? How do they live all together?
It’s our last day in Lebanon, and we want to run errands. The generator isn’t working, so we take the stairs from the ninth to the ground floor. We walk by furniture, boxes, even a motorcycle. Just beyond the second floor and before the first, the staircase opens up. Curious, I walk to the half-wall and look out. I see a small room cluttered with chairs, kitchen tools, spices, and what looks like a water counter. As my eyes turn to the second minuscule room, I realize that this is the janitor’s space and that the kids from the ground floor live here. I look away, feeling as though I’ve invaded what little privacy they might have.
Next year, when we return, I hope the kids will be home and safe. In Syria.