In the past few years, Saudi Arabia has made a tremendous stride to stem the nuisance of beggary. But it seems in recent times this social disease has returned. If you frequent certain establishments or stop regularly at certain street intersections, chances are you’d have noticed a disturbing phenomenon. You are immediately beseeched by some forlorn figure in tattered clothes looking for a handout. And even more disturbing is the realisation that while these faces may vanish or change over time, the desperation remains.
Just the other day I stopped at a fast-food drive-through to place an order. It was a wee bit into the night. As the vehicles ahead of me drove forward and moved on and I approached the window, I could not help noticing a little girl, not more than three or four years old, loitering precariously by the window ledge stretching her little palm for whatever offerings customers handed out.
Once my turn at the window came and I was waiting for my cholesterol-laden fare to be delivered, I was taken aback by the angelic beauty of this little girl. With soft curls and the most endearing of eyes, she looked straight at me and without saying a word gently held out one of her little palms while her other held on to the window ledge to maintain her balance. This soft and cherubic angel who in all likelihood did not even understand what she was doing spoke no words. And all this at the risk of her life, hanging for dear life in her tattered clothes. She was too young to be skilful in the trade of beggary, and yet here she was.
I got out of the car and looked around for an adult, one who had led this girl to this fate. Noticing an elder boy of about eight in equally tattered clothes, I called him over. After some inquiries, I was told that she was his little sister and their father was in Madinah. I tried to explain to him how dangerous it was to subject his little sister to this form of trade, subjecting her life to the risks of unruly and errant drivers who would barely notice her over the hoods of their automobiles. I asked him if there was an adult around who was responsible for them, where did they live, where was their mother, and so on. His only response was a blank stare and an outstretched palm.
When I responded with an equally determined stare, the boy inched over towards his bewildered sister and slunk off into the darkness of the night around the corner of the building.
I marched over to the drive-thru window, uncomfortably so; as by now the procession of cars waiting to pick up their order had grown to a considerable number. I asked to see the manager, and when he reluctantly came over to the window, I told him he was responsible to ensure the safety and security of all those in or around his establishment and the premises. To turn a blind eye and ignore the dangers these poor kids were being subjected to was simply not tolerable.
“But what could I do?” was his shrugged and uninterested reply, shooting me a look that read as “Now will you please get in your car, take your order, and drive off!” By now, the procession behind me was showing their impatience as car horns began to sound off with increased regularity. “Well, you could at least inform the authorities or assign someone from your establishment to ensure that these kids do not dart in harm’s way,” I retorted as I picked up my order and drove off.
Munching on cold fries on the way home, I felt depressed. Such a beautiful angel, and yet robbed of all the wonders of childhood. While others her age played within the comfort and security of defined homes and were blessed with the love and attention of caring parents and family members, here she was. Barely able to walk and out on this dark and foreboding night, manipulated into a profession she did not even understand, and one which probably did nothing to enhance her lot in life personally.
With an appetite that flew off the window, I turned the car around and drove back to the fast-food joint. Using children for such purposes is a crime. I will find her and her brother, I told myself, and I will make a difference. This poor child did not deserve her life’s meagre offerings. She will not be used as a pawn to beg for alms for others. She should be showered with love, guidance, and with choices. With comfort and with security those little ones need in order to grow into healthy and balanced adults. And most of all, with a chance!
Driving through the dark and lonely parking lot around the establishment, I looked all over for her. There were no signs of her and her brother. My little angel was gone!
— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena