It was my first ever Umrah trip in Ramadhan 2013 and words can’t describe my excitement. Visiting the Holy Lands, seeing where it all began, walking in the footsteps of the Prophet (SAW) and the sahaba and finally, finally seeing and praying in front of the Ka’bah; the house of Allah (SWT), our Lord, our Creator. How do you begin to put the experience into words? It was an eye opener to say the least.
It started in Medina, the city of peace and tranquillity. A breath-taking majestic place that captures the heart from the moment you enter. The stunning mosque seemed to be illuminated from every angle and reached out to the very core of my being. I had never seen anything like it. This was in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of the shops lining the mosque, the street criers selling their wares and the pushy shopkeepers who never slept, the reverberating call to prayer resounding through the whole sky, followed by the Qur’an being read so beautifully. It was heart rendering listening to the amazing recitation whilst we prayed as one unified body. The atmosphere in Ramadhan was absolutely electric. Sights and sounds that entranced and captivated all your senses. I loved the whole environment with a passion.
But that wasn’t what opened my eyes. Neither was it the poor manners or worst adab (manners) I had ever encountered amongst Muslims. The pushing, the shoving, elbowing and downright rudeness made me long for the orderly and civil life in UK. That aspect of Umrah deserves an article in its own right. However the poor manners still wasn’t what shocked me.
It was the beggars of Makkah and Madinah that astounded me. They were no ordinary beggars. They fearlessly sat in a line on busy roads and sidewalks, halting traffic, especially on Eid morning, wailing, begging, pleading. So many beggars sat in a long line on the road. There were adult female beggars, girl beggars and boy beggars. All kinds of beggars, but oddly they were all black. And they were all disfigured. I couldn’t understand how every single beggar had a disability. All black, all disabled? Surely that was too much of a coincidence?
I started asking about them. A disturbing response emerged. The person muttered and I could barely make out their response, but it was this: someone had done that to them! Someone had cut off their arms. Someone had cut off their legs. Someone had blinded them. Deliberately. Callously. That shook me to the core. I couldn’t fathom why. Who gave that right to destroy an able-bodied person and take away an essential part of them? How dare they!
The answer was simple – for money. It defies belief, it breaks every single moral barrier that ever existed. My mind was screaming with denial. But actually there was no escaping the ugly truth; children were being hacked away at for money. Innocent precious children. Why? Because an injured child brings in more money. Disfigured children can pull more on the heartstrings and the wallet than an ordinary beggar. That’s the logic. That’s the justification. So they create ‘extraordinary’ beggars. Cut off a limb, line the pockets. No questions asked, no accountability. Who cares about this child?
Maybe I had been wrapped in cotton wool for too long. This was new to me. I had never seen or heard anything like it. Children being cut up for money? This new angle of human depravity was too disturbing.
I started researching and found, to my horror, that this was not a new practice that had suddenly sprung up; it had been going on for quite a few decades actually. Different labels, different practices but essentially child labour, since the beginning of time. It was in the rife in the deadly slums of every poverty stricken country, with soaring records in India, Bangladesh, Africa and even booming countries like China.
Remnants of the hit blockbuster movie Slumdog Millionaire came back to me – the hidden story that was really being portrayed: child labour, child prostitution. Orphans and homeless children being offered a “home” in return for an arm or leg. Thousands and thousands of children all gathered for one purpose and at the head of them all the devil himself. The mastermind who whispers promises, destroys their bodies and then takes every penny.
It was no different in Mecca and Madinah, the Holy Lands. It was a rapidly growing money making business there because of the millions of pilgrims who visited every single year. UNICEF estimates that a maimed beggar in Saudi can make up to £250 in one day! The business is an extremely profitable one as it targets the nature of Muslims who are meant to give freely in charity, especially during Ramadan and Hajj. What bitter irony that we feed the very hands that we are supposed to eradicate.
Saudi authorities are alarmed by the growing trend and vast numbers of beggars flocking to these two places as well as many other cities in Saudi Arabia. It is alleged that thousands of African and Yemeni children have been kidnapped, maimed and then smuggled into the Middle Eastern country.
“Organised African gangs deliberately mutilate these child beggars before sending them into Saudi Arabia,” Mecca’s police spokesman, Abdul Mohsen al-Mimaan, was quoted as saying on September 27 in the Saudi pan-Arab daily, Asharq Al-Awsat.
One of the most tragic aspects of such child abuse is that parents themselves hand their very own children over to such ringleaders in exchange for a sum of money. Whether the parents genuinely believe that their child will come to no harm and are clueless as to what really happens is unknown but the secrecy surrounding the whole operation is what makes it particularly hard to clamp down on.
Saudi authorities, in collaboration with the Yemeni government, are trying to control and address the problem. Saudi Arabia has reportedly deported up to 4,000 children over the past few years to Yemen and other countries where they have originated from. Dr Ali Al Namlah, Saudi Minister of Social Affairs, said “Saudi Arabia and Yemen have agreed on setting up a joint committee to discuss the problem and suggest solutions. Al Namlah said the committee will focus on outlining the guidelines and mechanism that could help reduce the problem.”
Children’s charities have been set up in many cities of the Kingdom as an attempt to provide real shelter and security to such children. Food and basic education of the Qur’an is provided whilst a course of action is decided; should they send them back to the very place it began or should they keep them? What will become of the child?
These poor children, homeless, disfigured, abused and with no one to turn to, often cannot even recall how and when they were taken from their homes and thrust into a foreign country to beg. They sit on the roadsides of the Holy Lands and reach out. They watch as we enter the Haram, praying and crying, but these children cry for a different reason to the awe-filled pilgrims. They are children, as young as five and as old as eleven, forced into a life beyond their control. Children like yours and mine.
I couldn’t ignore it anymore because I saw my own little children amongst their blank, innocent expressions and I couldn’t look through rose tinted lenses anymore. I needed to talk about it, shout out and stamp my feet at the cruel injustice. I needed to do something to help or save at least one child from such a horrifying fate. I wanted to raise awareness, get support and become a voice for those children. So I ask: will you ignore the common cries of the extraordinary beggar?
Two organisations who help child slavery and trafficking are Dalit Freedom Network UK and Fight Slavery Now – both can be found online.
• The September 27th 2013 issue of Asharq Al-Awsat.
Miriam Islam lives with her 3 children and husband in the UK. A Former lecturer, she now spends her time as a homemaker and writing for Discover magazine. She continues dreaming up stories to startle the world.
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