BEIRUT: The light reaches only a short way down the six-story ventilation shaft, at the bottom of which Ahmad al-Zoubi was found dead three days after he went missing.
The shaft is a crude construction that reaches into the bowels of a smartly clad residential building in Verdun. It sits in the corner of an opening formed by the break between a ramp rising to the building’s car park and an alleyway.
For someone looking for shelter from the elements, there is plenty of room in the opening, which is perhaps 2 meters squared. To move out of sight of the alleyway, it is necessary to move further into the corner of the opening, toward the opening of the dark, deep shaft.
The story of 14-year-old Zoubi’s death gained traction on social media when activists posted grainy CCTV footage of the moments just before his death at around 10 a.m. last Tuesday. His family had grown concerned, having not seen the boy for several days. They asked in local police stations, which had no knowledge of his whereabouts, before asking the Salam Mosque, on one of Zoubi’s typical beats, to share CCTV footage. What they found would help them uncover the tragedy that had occurred.
Young shoeshiners like Zoubi are a common sight on the streets of Beirut. While it is illegal for Syrians of any age to work in the profession - they are only supposed to work certain jobs in agriculture, construction and environment - the rates of child labor among Syrian refugee boys between the ages of 5 and 17 stands at 3.4 percent, according to the 2018 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, published by the U.N. refugee agency.
According to Nasser Yassin, director of research at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute and co-chair of the AUB4Refugees initiative, young refugees are primarily driven into this type of cash-in-hand work because of grinding poverty. Sixty-nine percent of refugee households live below the poverty line, according to the UNHCR report.
Zoubi’s cousin, also called Ahmad, told The Daily Star the boy’s father wanted him to enroll in school. “But life is hard in Lebanon. There’s rent, there’s the upkeep for the family, he has six sisters, a little brother, his mother is a housewife who doesn’t work.” The cousin said that, other than the father who worked as a porter, Zoubi was the family’s main breadwinner. “He was very close to my heart. He was a guy who seemed older than his years,” he said.
One woman, selling tissues on the mosque steps during midday prayers, described her dilemma. The authorities “might stop you and take you at any time,” she said. Nevertheless, “I sell what I can. I have a son to feed. If I don’t sell anything we don’t eat.”
Zoubi’s work brought him into conflict with the authorities. A spokesperson for Beirut Municipality told The Daily Star that municipal police had arrested the shoeshiner four times, but said this was the first time he had run from police. Normal procedure, the spokesperson said, was to arrest the child and put them in a detention room for three or four hours. The procedures for adults and children are approximately the same.
“They used to chase him everywhere,” Zoubi’s cousin said.
Multiple sources also said Zoubi would complain of having been beaten by the police, a charge the municipality strongly denies.
Whatever the case, the boy had no desire to be taken for questioning last Tuesday. In the CCTV video, Zoubi can be seen wandering a street next to the mosque with his shoeshine box. Apparently seeing the police vehicle approach, he abruptly turns and runs into the alleyway next to the residential building, into which he is pursued by two members of the Beirut municipal police. It was the last he would be seen alive.
In a statement the municipality said that police wanted to question Zoubi and one other over the theft of a Zakat donation box opposite Le Bristol Hotel. They managed to arrest one of the suspects, who was subsequently released, but failed to catch Zoubi. The municipality said its officers conducted themselves “in the framework of laws and regulations. ... The arrest of violators of the law is carried out with respect and without any violence or abuse.”
Nevertheless, the manner of Zoubi’s death has sparked an online outcry. A Facebook video describing his last moments by social media channel AJPlus Arabic has garnered over 8,000 reactions and 1,000 shares. More than 400 people have registered their interest in attending a march this coming Friday to condemn the incident.
Few are accusing the authorities of having deliberately killed the boy. However, some are calling their practices into question. “The municipality was the cause. He ran from them and they chased after him, that’s the long and short of it,” one local said, who asked to remain anonymous.
Yassin called for an investigation, saying: “We should learn from this sad incident to work with those street children and to protect them, rather than treat them as criminals.”
Majdoline Lahham is an activist who lives in the neighborhood and knew Zoubi - she remembers him as a kid who “wouldn’t really bother anyone.” She was the first to publish the CCTV footage on social media at the request of the boy’s family. The activist told The Daily Star what she thought had driven him to the furthest corner of the opening, causing him to fall to his death: “I think he died because he was scared.” - Additional reporting by Ghada Alsharif and Aya Fares