Nine-year-old Fares al-Khodor is one of these child laborers, but his scrupulous attention to his physical appearance perhaps sets him apart from the rest of his peers.
His hair gelled straight up with immaculate precision, Fares, who has his own Facebook account, is accompanied by his elder brother Youssef, maybe in the role of media adviser, in an interview in a cafe near Hamra street, the “location” of Fares’ job.
Fares, who on first meeting appears shy, is more than happy to divulge details of his life and work, which starts every evening at around 6 p.m., except Mondays, when he rests after a busy weekend.
“To me, Hamra is my family; it is part of me,” Fares says, describing his attachment to the street and its residents.
Born to Syrian parents, Fares’ family moved to Lebanon in 2010. Soon after the move, Fares decided to start selling flowers.
“Due to his age, he cannot work somewhere where his managers will give him orders on different tasks that he needs to do,” Youssef says in answer to a question on why Fares is working at such a young age. The minimum working age in Lebanon is 14, except for domestic or agricultural work.
Fadi, a waiter at the cafe, expresses his regret that the 9-year-old does not attend school; however, he has not yet heard Fares’ heartwarming tale.
Last April, a 28-year-old accountant approached Fares while he was selling flowers and asked him if he would be interested in being tutored.
For four days a week she taught Fares basic vocabulary and the Arabic alphabet. When the family returned to Syria in September, he enrolled in school, and, according to Youssef, performed well academically.
However, with the deteriorating security situation next door, the family returned to Beirut after three months, and Fares resumed his position as Hamra’s charismatic young mascot.
Many patrons of the area’s cafes, restaurants and bars frequently turn to Fares to convey messages of love and affection to boyfriends and girlfriends.
“A month ago, there was a person sitting in a cafe who appeared to be sad because he had broken up with his girlfriend. He told me to give his ex-girlfriend a flower every time I saw her in the street.”
Fares does not know if the floral memos were successful, however, as he does not know if the couple are as yet reunited.
Denying that his work is akin to begging Fares states: “I sell the roses for LL3,000, but if someone cannot afford this price I sell it for just LL1,000.”
He also says that he refuses to take money from people unless they accept a flower in return.
Omar Kabboul, 28, frequents the area, and knows Fares well. “Fares never accepts money unless he gives a flower in return, he feels this is humiliating. Lately, I have begun taking the flowers to let him feel productive.”
In the late evenings, and especially on Fridays and Saturdays, Fares pops into the street’s cafes and bars.
Those patrons who recognize him and know him well, and perhaps especially the couples, stop to chat to him and buy flowers for their loved ones.
He feels supported by the majority of the street’s customers, and a recent episode displays their often protective attitudes toward him.
A foreigner, a customer in one of the pubs Fares often visits, was shocked by the flower seller’s presence, as he is underage and was in the venue at around midnight. Shouting at Fares, the customer told him to leave the pub, in an offensive tone.
Rushing to protect him, other customers who know Fares well intervened on his behalf, and when the situation escalated, becoming increasingly tense, the venue owner had to break up the argument.
One of Fares’ other friends in the area who witnessed the event recounts what Fares said to the man after the situation had died down:
“I am a student, but I sell flowers during my free time. I can afford to make a reservation in this pub and I can even buy the entire place if I wanted to!”
A couple of months ago, the waiters at Kaakaya Cafe celebrated Fares’ birthday by buying him a cake, their way of honoring this charming boy who has become part of the fabric of the local community.