I remember a day last summer when I left university to return home. On my walk, my body moved calmly as if I was dancing to a slow song. A soft smile was drawn across my lips. My heart was pounding. I was thinking about a compliment I had received on a presentation I had just done for my translation class. The praise inspired me to think about how I want to be a teacher in the future.
Suddenly, I saw two small boys selling balloons in the street. I’d seen them before; I’d estimate they are about 11 or 12 years old. And I felt guilty whenever I saw them.
“Please buy from me,” they pleaded.
I hated hearing those words. It hurt to hear and see little boys who had to work instead of play. Since I couldn’t close my eyes, I closed my heart and tried to think of something else while praying to God to forgive me. What I hated most was the feeling that I couldn’t offer any help.
As I walked on, my mind wandered to the small pleasures I had as a child that the boys probably didn’t, like being able to play on the streets without worrying about whether there is enough money for food. My parents assured that and I never had to think about it. Yet many people live their whole lives without truly noticing or enjoying them. I promised myself I would be guilty of the same. I did not want the real world to invade my daydreams. But again it did.
“Can you read that script written there?” one of two boys beside the road asked me.
My eyes followed the boy’s finger, looking for a paper or a written thing to read. I was wondering why he asked me to do this. What did he really want? And most importantly, where was the writing he was talking about? While thinking those questions, he added, "I mean there, on the opposite wall."
I asked, "Oh, do you mean ‘Cordoba’?” Before I had finished my question, the boy jumped up and screamed, "Yeah!” It was the name of the restaurant: Cordoba.
“I read it correctly! I told you I can read!" he said proudly to the boy beside him. I gazed at him with my eyes wide open and my brow raised. His laugh ws happy and his eyes shone. I smiled with him. Eventually, I realized I was inappropriately standing in the middle of the street. Also, it was noon and I could barely open my eyes on this hot sunny day. My body was in need of some rest, especially after attending three lectures on the theory of education.
I hailed a taxi. I got in and opened the window. I looked at the buildings, people, trees and other passing things. I heard people talking, horns honking and radios blaring. However, my mind was with the boy who was proud he could read. He was happy simply because he had the ability to read a word containing five letters. And my heart was still beside the two begging children. How painful! I thanked God for his blessings.
Months later, I saw those the photos of the same two kids who had been begging, on the Facebook page of a friend. She had also met them. She even went to their house. I thought to myself, “This girl is better than me. She took the time to go to their home and learn more about their suffering.” She explained on Facebook: "I always thought they were just like the rest of these children on the streets, until one of them told me he didn't want any money. He said he wanted milk for his little sister. Right then, I decided to go to their house and meet their family and see where they were living, They had only one bedroom for six people and their house had no living room, TV or washing machine."
They are brothers living in Al-Shijauya, a town that was a site of one of the massacres in the 2014 war on Gaza. Since their sick father isn’t able to work, their mother sends them out to earn some money. The kids make just 15 shekels ($4) a day, and this only buys them bread and cheese. They were supposed to live like any kid in the world, enjoying lives filled with play and school. However, their fate is different. They need to be the provider. The boys told my friend that all they want is to go back to school. They just want to enjoy their right to education. But the kids not only need to think of themselves and their toys, but also of all their family members. I couldn’t imagine how hard life is for them. I felt so guilty for not doing more.
What I had witnessed was a small example of the life of two working children. There are more children and more stories of suffering. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 39,300 children age 10-17 work in the Palestinian territories, usually in small workshops and factories. Of those, 29,600 work in the West Bank and 9,700 in the Gaza Strip. Such numbers don’t include those who work informally—selling things in streets, markets and other crowded places.
In the photos, I notice the smiles on their faces. Are they real? How can a kid with such a life smile? I know there is a subconscious tendency to act opposite of one’s condition to pretend it is otherwise. So you smile, even when your heart is full of grief. Aware of what the boys probably wished inside, my superego asked, ”How much do you like going to university, Hanin? To what extent do you make use of your time there? What have you achieved so far? Do you have the same thirsty mind for education and knowledge as those kids?”
It was an ordinary day, but it changed the way I see things in my life.
Director's note: The friend of Hanin's who visited the boys is another writer from We Are Not Numbers, Hind Khoudary. She reports that after she posted the story of the boys, many people tried to help with money, clothes and food. But without a permanent source of income, there is no hope of their situation changing. The boys are still selling on the streets.