Magazine article New Internationalist

Life Lessons: A Voice from the Past Brings Reem Haddad Back in Touch with a Life Touched by Brilliance - and Suffering

Magazine article New Internationalist

Life Lessons: A Voice from the Past Brings Reem Haddad Back in Touch with a Life Touched by Brilliance - and Suffering

Article excerpt

I KEPT staring at the tall, lanky young man sitting across from me. 'I don't want money or food,' he said, lowering his eyes. 'But there is one thing I want more than anything. I have one dream and you're the only person who can help me.'

At 24, Shadi was living alone in a rat-infested room with no electricity, running water or even a toilet nearby. Like his father, he was a squatter in a privately owned building. He searched the city dumpsters every night to find recyclable cartons or plastics to sell. He hadn't eaten in days but refused to let me buy him lunch.

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'More than anything I want to learn English,' he said. I continued to stare, stupefied.

'Reem, you started me on this, remember?' he said. 'I loved school and hated my father for what he did. It's too late for me to go back to school but not too late to keep learning. Please help me again.'

It was 13 years ago that I had first met him and his sister, begging on the streets of Beirut. Something in the little girl's face caught my eye. Her eyes were partly hidden by long, jet-black hair and she peeked at me from behind her brother. Refusing to give them money, I offered to buy them lunch instead and we sat together, slowly getting to know each other. Our lunches became a daily rendezvous. The girl, Hala, was 9 and the boy, Shadi, 11. Neither had been to school. Their mother was dead and their father made them work the streets - just two of the many street children who appeared right after the 1975-90 war. They were squatting in a room that had once been a university dormitory. The father's bloodshot eyes said much about his pastime. I was still in university and thought - as the young tend to - that I could save the world, beginning with these children.

So I spent all my free time with them. I found a barrel of water in the ratinfested building in order to bathe them. I begged friends for clothes and talked a nearby theology school into providing lunch for them. Their father continued to send them to the streets. Worried, I would search for them in the middle of the night and find them huddled together. Turning to the law was useless. Except in cases of severe physical or sexual abuse, parents had the ultimate right when it came to their children. …

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