Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Tragedy of Begging Children

Driving from Jerusalem today to the near by village of Abu Gosh, I was greeted by a site that never ceases to break my heart. As I pulled up to a stop light, I came across the young Arab boys trying to pick up change from the cars waiting for the light. They usually are 'selling' chicklets in small packages, or they have sponges or rags and a bucket of water and start washing your windshield and windows - whether you want them to or not.

It makes me so sad. One of these boys, I have watched for many years. He's always in one of two places near the apartment where I stay. I've watched him grow up.

I wonder (and worry about) what will happen to these kids. What are they learning about life and themselves from their endeavors? In most all cases, parents are requiring the children to do this. The families are so poor and destitute that it is literally a source of income for them. The kids don't have a choice in the matter.

I've seen the same thing in other places I've traveled. In India, there are large numbers of begging children. Parents sometimes cripple or maim their children because it will make passers by more sympathetic and more likely to give money to the child. It is so very heartbreaking.

I've traveled with groups before where well meaning tourists will bring candy, pens and other trinkets to give to begging children. Sometimes tourists getting off of buses are literally mobbed by throngs of begging children. In some places the children can get very aggressive when groups of tourists arrive, because they have been 'trained' to know that tourists often bring things like this to give to kids.

One of the more offensive manifestations of this is when people throw handfuls of this type of stuff into a mass of kids. The kids begin to fight and claw to get theirs. It's a humiliating and dehumanizing experience.

I know that people are trying to be kind and help when they do this, but here is a suggestion. I worked with a tour company in Egypt one time where a certain amount of the tour price was donated by the Egyptian tour operator to schools and local social service organizations in the nearby villages. The tour operator actually told us that the best way to 'help' these kids is not to give directly to them (so as to encourage begging), but to give to these organizations so that the aid can be distributed where it will most help, and be delivered in a dignified manner. He even offered to facilitate this for anyone who wanted to make a donation above and beyond what was already included in their tour package price.

I loved this idea. First off, I truly dislike 'conditioning' kids to believe that their only value is to beg and ask for charity. Think of the damage to their little spirits that happens day after day when that is their activity or vocation. It is demeaning and belittling.

Giving to locally run aid organizations is a way to really help the kids (with food and school supplies) that will make a difference in their lives. It's a much better way to go about it.

If you will be traveling somewhere and want to take things for the impoverished children in that region, do a little research (either through your tour company or on your own) and find out the best way to give. It isn't as hard as it may seem, and you'll not only make a positive difference, you will also not inadvertently perpetuate the problem.

All children deserve love, respect and dignity. All children... everywhere.

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