A homeless child playing music on the streets of the Syrian capital near Damascus University. Many children can be seen begging at the traffic lights of Abu Rummaneh Street or Mezzeh Autostrade. Image Credit: Mahmoud Nouweilati

Beirut: Abu Moyhi Al Deen is a former grocer in Al Hajar Al Aswad, a one-time high density poor neighbourhood of Damascus, held by Syrian rebels since 2012.

His vegetable shack was neatly poised on the corner of “Street 30” of the nearby Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp, once a hotbed for Hamas and Fateh, now controlled by Daesh-affiliated militants.

At 80, he now lives on a street corner of the Sham Palace Hotel in central Damascus. His house was overrun by Palestinian militias, he told Gulf News, after it was hit by several mortars three years ago.

“I have three children; one of them was killed. The other two went by sea to Denmark and Italy — they nearly drowned. They are barely surviving with their own families.”

Bent and shrivelled with old age and misery, he adds: “They don’t send me money so I have to make a living here, selling Kleenex at traffic lights on [nearby] Pakistan Street.”

At night, he walks from Pakistan Street to the Sham Palace — a stone’s throw away — takes out a mattress hidden behind an electricity poll, and spends the night, watching the city’s moneyed elite walking into the famous 5-star hotel for dinner at its Chinese restaurant or the Paris-branded Entrecote.

Some give him money as they pass.

Homeless people are a painful new novelty for Damascus. Not too long ago, they were common only on the streets of European capitals, while Syrians boasted that they didn’t have a “homeless problem” thanks to their strong non-governmental welfare system and zakat-oriented Muslim society.

“Before this war started nobody slept on the streets of Damascus” said Ahmad Salah, a taxi driver at the Sham Palace area, “this scene is new to us.”

Before the year 2011, families in need always found support either from charity NGOs or wealthy silent philanthropists who paid monthly stipends to families in need.

Today, however, they are found everywhere, sleeping on worn-out mattresses or old newspapers, with tin cups placed before them. They are mostly found around the Salhieh Market and 29 May Street, which are dotted with offices and frequented by well-to-do residents of the Syrian capital, or around Al Jisr Al Abyad and Al Muhajireen, on the slopes of Mount Qassioun, two densely populated middle-class neighbourhoods.

Others are found in the vicinity of the Four Seasons Hotel, surrounding the Grand Umayyad Mosque in the Old City, and near the Shiite shrines of Sayida Zeinab and Sayida Rukayya.

The cash-strapped Syrian government has ignored them in recent years as it focuses on bankrolling its battles.

Despite that, over 50 charity organisations still operate in the Syrian capital, trying to curb and minimise damage of the human disaster.

Earlier this year, no less than 50,000 homeless men, women, and children fled the violence in their villages and towns in the Syrian south, and came searching for sanctuary in Damascus.

Only 130 of those homeless children were housed at the two SOS care centres in Damascus.

The rest can be seen begging on the traffic lights of the posh Abu Rummaneh Street or on the Mezzeh Autostrade, occupied by senior government officials, foreign diplomats, and the UN.

Over the course of Syria’s five-year war, thousands of homeless families have fled to the Syrian capital, mainly from Al Ghouta, the agricultural belt surrounding the capital, or from the Syrian south.

Residents of the Syrian north don’t have the luxury of making it to Damascus, because the roads are unsafe and often inaccessible because of the violence.

They either flee to Turkey or find sanctuary in villages and towns occupied by militants surrounding major cities like Aleppo.

The Syrian Government does not have any numbers or figures for the number of homeless people on the streets of Syria, although the UN puts the figure of internally displaced people at approximately 6.6-7 million people.

The last figures for homeless people available in government records are from 2009. That number stood at 1,960 men, women, and children in Damascus — not high for a city whose population at the time stood at approximately 5 million.

The population of Damascus has now swollen to over 10 million.

Mustafa, 10, sells bubble gum at the tip of Abu Rummaneh, near the former Le Meridien Hotel, now localised and renamed, Dama Rose Hotel.

He fled to Damascus with his family from a small village in the vicinity of Daraa, near the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Damascus Police frequently chase these young children, forcing them to move from one location to the next, often several times a day.

“If they arrest us we are incarnated for a few days at a police station then released because of our age. We have to pay a fine,” he told Gulf News.

“My mother tells me to sell chewing gum” he says, adding that he dropped out of school five years ago.

“I have to make money for the family — I am the only man amid four girls.”