No Place to Call Home: Stories of Abuse at Celebrated Lebanese Orphanage
There is nothing strange about Tarek Mallah’s story. After years of silence, this young man openly testified that he had been raped at the Social Welfare Institutions- Islamic Orphanage in Beirut. Orphanages around the world are exposed to these kinds of incidents. This is especially true for Lebanon, which lacks a clear national policy for the protection of children in such institutions.
The story Tarek decided to tell is one of pain and suffering – one for which he perhaps blames himself, having been the victim of abuse by fellow residents at the orphanage. Though older than Tarek, they too were children, and had probably been the victims of similar incidents. They all share the same pain. Their ordeal is the outcome of being torn away from the care of their biological parents and placed in an institution, where being an orphan is not what hurts the most.
Tarek kept his secret to himself and faced the stares of those around him. Yet whatever he did, he felt that he would not be able to overcome this terrible feeling of frustration: To be a helpless child and a victim of assault – not to find anyone who would listen and wipe away the tears of pain, fear and shame, or grant him justice.
Tarek joined the SWI Orphanage in 1996 at the age of 2 under circumstances typical of many other children housed there. His father used to beat his mother. His parents divorced, and his father was sent to prison to serve a long sentence. His mother wanted to remarry. Tarek and his 8-year-old sister were taken to the Islamic Orphanage. The sister was deemed too old for admission and was sent to live with her maternal grandparents. The children were separated, and the family bond they shared was severed. Tarek does not remember visiting his sister and grandparents. A poor family living in Beirut’s Southern Suburb, they did not have easy access to means of transportation. Thus, the years went by, and Tarek stayed alone at the orphanage.
Tarek’s Life as an Orphan
Tarek moved through the different SWI institutions as follows:
The Nursery from age 2 to age 5;
Dar al-Ekhwa (the House of Brotherhood) from age 6 to age 8; and
Dar al-Toufoula (the House of Childhood) from age 8 to age 9.
In each of these institutions, 4 female supervisors would provide “care” to every 100 children.
Despite feeling the bitterness of being an orphan, Tarek led a quiet life at those institutions. Unlike him, many of his fellow residents at the orphanage would visit their families during the holidays, and return with chocolate, biscuits and some money. Nevertheless, Tarek did manage to find some kind of balance during his childhood. Though shy and introverted, he was forced to participate in orphanage fundraising activities, such as theater plays and the Ramadan parade.
Tarek speaks of his haunting hunger at the time, as food would only be available at the cafeteria 3 times a day: in the morning, after school and before bed. In a system reminiscent of that of prisons, children would each carry a platter and stand in a long line for their turn to receive a ration of food from the cook. Fruits would only be available twice a week at the most.
Tarek attended public school in special classrooms reserved for students of SWI. He was given no allowance, but every so often, some of his friends would feel sorry for him [and get him things]. The shopkeeper would often offer him something out of pity. Tarek, it was reasoned, was an orphan after all, and thus giving him alms was considered a good deed and a blessing.
Throughout all these phases, Tarek witnessed many instances of physical abuse by supervisors. What he remembers most are beatings with a broomstick, followed by depriving children of food. Oftentimes, children would also be deprived of the candy donated to the orphanage, and perhaps even of new clothes during religious holidays. Yet, in spite of everything, he worked hard at school, because he viewed education as a means of salvation.
When Tarek turned 9, he moved to SWI’s Dar al-Saada (the House of Happiness). The latter consists of a massive building housing around 400 children aged 9 to 14, in addition to a few older children. Often of unknown parentage, these older boys could sometimes stay at the orphanage until the age of 21.
Children at Dar al-Saada were divided into 100 per floor. Each floor is composed of 6 rooms for children and one room housing 4 supervisors. Each children's room was filled with two-level bunk beds placed close together. Being the youngest of the group, Tarek’s bed was located far from the door. At Dar al-Saada, Tarek discovered a different side to the orphanage. There were repeated cases of escape, as the older children would often climb over the wall of the orphanage or elude its guards and go out into the surrounding streets. They would come back with forbidden items, such as cigarettes, liquor and prized pornographic magazines and films. Children caught smuggling were severely beaten or deprived of food; sometimes they would even be detained in isolation.
Those were Tarek’s first days and earliest discoveries at Dar al-Saada. Then came that darkest of nights, when he woke up with someone’s pair of hands clasped over his mouth, while another pair stripped him of his clothes, and a third set of eyes watched the door. Tarek speaks of the events of that night with a great deal of pain. They took turns raping him that night, while he begged them to stop. They threatened him should he reveal their secret. Then they went back to their beds and slept.
Tarek woke up to horrible pain, an unsteady walk and blood on his bed. He went to the bathroom, washed up, and took the bus to school. He was unable to talk about this to anyone and kept the secret, but his schoolwork began to suffer. He became even more introverted, and lost his appetite for food. Fearing another nightly assault, he would rarely surrender to the weariness of sleep. Tarek was left alone for a month or more, but then the rapes began to happen again. This occurred at an average rate of twice a week, committed by 14-year-old boys who slept on the same floor.
After being raped repeatedly, Tarek apparently decided to choose his rape “partner” himself, rather than be surprised into it. He says he even once tried to molest a younger child, but he was unable to do it.
For five years at Dar al-Saada, Tarek was raped and he engaged in sexual relations without anyone noticing. From a [sexual] victim, he had turned into a partner, and had never been able to tell anyone what was happening. For five years, Tarek witnessed children waking up with a hand clasped over their mouth and another stripping them down, and pain, and blood, and silence.
Tarek turned 14, and could no longer bear this atmosphere of silence, fear and suffocation. He was alone, despite his new-found affiliation with the gang on his floor. This was something that bore down heavily on him. He had never managed to finish middle school.
He decided to escape. In 2008, he forged a signature on an exit pass, walked out of the orphanage and never came back. He asked about his grandparents’ house and went to live with them. His sister had married at an early age, and the relationship they had shared no longer existed. He looked for his mother, but to no avail. His father might still be in prison.
Tarek never told his grandparents what had happened to him at the orphanage, and SWI never checked on him anyway. Thus, he left the orphanage a 14-year-old boy, uneducated and penniless, and deeply affected by the abuse he was subjected to.
Tarek spent three years in [his grandparents’] neighborhood, playing ball games with the local boys. Eventually, he told one of them his story. The boy suggested that Tarek should appear on Ahmar Bel Khat al-Areed (the Thick Red Line), a talk show hosted by Malek Maktabi on Lebanese network LBC. In 2011, Tarek appeared on the show wearing a mask and told his story. In the same year, he appeared on another talk show, Enta Horr (You Are Free), hosted by Joe Maalouf on Lebanese network MTV. This time, he did not hide his identity.
Facing increasing difficulties, Tarek decided to go to the orphanage and speak with the director. He told the latter of the suffering he experienced while at the orphanage and asked for help finding a job. The director advised him to pay regular visits to the social worker [at the orphanage], until a suitable job could be found for him. For a while, Tarek worked at a chocolate factory in the Lebanese district of Choueifat. However, when he found out that the orphanage had told the factory manager everything about him, he decided to leave. He felt weak and exposed. He got another job at a coffee shop, but he quit when he was denied his salary.
Tarek continued to visit the social worker [at the orphanage] regularly. One day, he ran into one of the old supervisors [from his time there]. She assured him that children at the orphanage were still falling victim to the same cases of rape and physical abuse. This was too much for Tarek, who flew into a fit of rage. The director asked him to see the orphanage psychologist, who encouraged him to forget the past. However, Tarek felt that other children were still going through the same experiences he had. He turned to Joe Maalouf again, appearing several times on his new show on LBC, 7ki Jelis (Talk Straight). The show was flooded with phone calls confirming that numerous children had been victims of rape.
As a result of Tarek’s television appearances, the administration of the SWI Islamic Orphanage issued a written statement in which it admitted that violations had been committed. In its statement, SWI also claimed to have provided Tarek with the appropriate assistance, in addition to a temporary job at a business connected to a member of SWI’s Board of Trustees. After eight months without pay, he was intimidated into signing a letter of resignation, and was paid a mere US$1000 for compensation.
Tarek channels his feelings of anger and frustration into “standing up for” his brothers at the orphanage. It is a kind of fraternity whose real significance is known only to those who intimately experienced what it means to be an orphan in an orphanage run by “benefactors”. Children there have no rights, no privacy, and no individuality. They must be thankful every day that someone thought of them after their parents died or abandoned them. Perhaps they even “left them by the side of the road”, or “abused them”. Perhaps, they simply “sought to provide them with food and education” being too poor to do so themselves.
As such do-gooders come along wearing angelic mantles and become the [children’s] fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles and neighbors. They become part of their daily and their social lives, the laughter and discovery of their teenage years, their hope and their future. Then in a single swipe, the benefactor institution devours the lives of these children. The biological parents had probably been unable to provide for them, and thus place them in orphanages. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Like a whale, the institution swallows up the children’s lives and asks for charity on their behalf. It feeds on them and lives off them, yet wears the savior’s mantle and having assumed this responsibility purportedly out of good will and at its own expense, it is sanctified by the public. When the whale feels full, it spits out the child, now a young man, and sends him out unprepared into the world to face it without any survival skills.
None of this is strange: such a scenario is typical not just in Lebanon, but everywhere in the world, even if to varying degrees. What is strange is this complete silence by state authorities about everything that is happening in the world of child welfare in Lebanon. Left entirely in the hands of charities, it remains outside the scope of questioning, accountability or legal prosecution.