Ramadan: seasonal beggars, seasonal charity [Archives:2008/1196/Reportage]

September 6 2008

Khaled Al-Hilaly
Every Ramadan, the elderly Hajj Saleh heads to the capital Sana'a to beg. In his village, far from Sana'a, Saleh owns a plot of land. He is married with children, and used to work in Saudi Arabia. Only in Ramadan does he become a beggar. His name is on the Ramadan lists, those lists of individuals to whom companies and businessmen give donations every Ramadan. During the holy month, his day starts at noon and ends after midnight, and he wanders the streets stopping at shops, businesses, vehicles – anywhere where he can get that extra change. “I collect about YR.1,000 ($5) a day from standing on streets; the worshippers at mosques are especially generous with people like me,” said Hajj Saleh.

But Hajj Saleh is not always this fortunate, especially when he encounters corrupt authorities. “The day before yesterday I was among a group who were taken by authorities from the anti-begging campaign; they arrested me for half a day and took the YR 8,000 in my pocket, then they released me,” he said.

Begging has become a highly visible phenomenon during the month of Ramadan, not only in Yemen but also in most Arab and Islamic countries. Beggars stand at traffic lights, visit shops, sit in front of mosques and wealthy residences, or just roam the streets, asking for food or money. Some are poor, ill and unfortunate, while others just pretend to be. Many come from villages or urban areas to the capital Sana'a and main cities like Aden, Taiz or Hodeidah.

According to Mohammad Al-Qubati, the general manager of the Islah Social Charity Association (ISCA), there are two main reasons behind the increase in people taking to the streets to beg during the holy month. The first is Ramadan food requirements and preparations for the Eid festivities, while the second is people's greater generosity during Ramadan. This has prompted some people to turn to begging as a lucrative form of income, even though they have the ability to work.

According to a study on begging published in 2007 by the Yemen Centre for Study and Research (YCSR), price hikes and unemployment are the main reasons behind the increase of begging in Sana'a. “Children are forced -usually by their parents- to go begging on streets,” the study noted.

Sharaf Al-Qalisi, head of the anti-begging project in Sana'a, said that beggars are only prevented from begging in some places in the city, like public squares and the main intersections. “The beggars we collect during campaigns receive nourishment and some lectures on how to stop begging,” Al-Qalisi said, noting that anti-begging officials who take money from beggars are fired from their jobs.

According to UNICEF, Yemen's nutrition crisis may be off the world's radar, but the numbers speak loudly. Half of all children are underweight, and half are stunted. Malnourished children are at greater risk of disease, long-term mental disability and untimely death.Stretched out on the sidewalk, cradling two babies in ripped sheets and pregnant with her third child, Um Zakaria comes from Sa'wan to the city centre every day. She stays on the streets from noon until midnight and gathers more than Y.R 1,000 ($5) every day, sometimes making up to Y.R 2,000 (10$). Her husband works as a street sweeper.

“Half a million people and 75,000 families received support from the ISCA during Ramadan and about 100,000 children will receive Eid clothing,”Al-Qubati declared.

According to Al-Qalisi, the amounts given to individuals as social security somehow lighten the load for the poor, but it is still not enough. “In addition to collecting information from beggars, like personal details, income resources and the reasons pushing them to beg, we also categorize beggars: orphan, disabled, woman, sick or elderly. We send each category to a specialized place so that they can be provided with proper help. For example, orphans are sent to orphanages and the disabled are set to disabled centres”, he explained.

Saif Ammer is 8-years-old. He is not a Ramadan seasonal beggar like Hajj Saleh or Um Zakaria: he is a permanent one. His parents are divorced, and he lives with his mother and her husband. Every day, he has to spend more than 12 hours at the bus station begging for money. Coming home to his mother with less than Y.R 800 ($4) can subject him to a beating. “I hate begging,” says Ammer, “I want to go to school.”

According Dr. Abdu Ali Al-Kamil, a social researcher, fighting illiteracy and giving education more attention by the government is one of the most effective solutions for the social phenomenon of begging.

According to Al-Qubati, some families need support to be able to stand on their own, so the ISCA provides them with the training they need to start a small business, for example teaching them sewing, carpentry, or computer skills. Other people need financial support to start a job. “We also have a wide range of development projects for poor; we buy a boat for a fisherman, a cow for a farmer or a car for a poor man to depend on himself.” added Al-Qubati.

Although there are hundreds of charities spread all over the country, only a few reach rural and remote areas. “Some charity associations and businessmen distribute their Ramadan aid only for people in main cities and ignore the rural areas,” said Al-Qalisi, “they should target poor and needy people in remote areas and then they will not come to cities for begging.”

“Despite the wide need and a big number of needy families, the work done by charity associations, businessmen and other charitable individuals proves that Yemeni society is still collaborative and helpful,” Al-Qubati concluded.