28.07.2011 - News

The Dom People and their Children in Lebanon

Beginning to see an invisible community

Even if you haven’t heard of the “Dom” people before, it’s probable that you have come across them, if you have gone to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. You might have caught a glimpse of them from a distance, while driving along a main highway. You may have wondered momentarily about the people who are living in those make-shift shacks, made of corrugated iron, wood and plastic sheeting. Or you might have met them closer up, possibly even locked gazes or exchanged a word or two, but this would only be after having been approached by a young girl or a boy begging for money or adamant to clean the windscreen of your car.

What’s sure is that most people in Lebanon have heard about the Dom, yet they remain perplexed by the term because it is not the one used in everyday language. They know the Dom as “Nawar”, a word with condescending and derogatory connotations in Arabic. This word conditions interactions between Dom and non-Dom throughout the Middle East, and prevents many people from looking beyond the surface of the poverty that Dom live in. It forecloses acknowledgement of the Dom as a people with history, culture and traditions. It allows people to remain blind to their needs.

The Terre des hommes delegation in Lebanon and Insan Association’s report seeks to challenge such collective blindness and looks at the Dom people through humanitarian lenses. The research that informs the content of this report is the first of its kind, not only in Lebanon, but throughout the Arab region. More specifically, it examines the needs of Dom children. In doing so, it fills a major gap in the Lebanese research landscape by inquiring about one of the most vulnerable and marginalised communities in the country.

The general objective of the research was to identify the child protection needs of Dom children and devise appropriate ways to respond. In doing so, the assessment identified potential protection actors for Dom children and attempted to locate the gaps in the protective environment. The research was carried out in four geographical areas: Bekaa, Beirut, Saida and Tyre, with more than 3,000 Dom.

In general, Dom communities are either isolated from major dwellings or located near poor, marginalized areas, for example Palestinian refugee camps. Over 72% of those who participated in the research hold Lebanese citizenship, owing to the Lebanese naturalization law passed in 1994. Naturalisation has changed their migration habits, with 87% of the sample now reporting a sedentary lifestyle. It has also increased Dom access to public services, such as education and health.

Nonetheless, the Dom are a community that face multiple vulnerabilities: Extreme poverty; No legal basis for residence and fear of being expelled from homes; Rudimentary shelters; Inadequate water and sanitation infrastructure. These in turn engender a host of concerns for children in these communities, namely: Increased health risks and poor nutrition; Low educational attainment; Lack of safe places to play for children; Children without identification documents. Children suffer from a lot of violence and negligence: marginalisation and discrimination; Early marriage and motherhood; Dangerous and exploitative forms of work: Delinquency; Prostitution; Trafficking.

Given that Dom children face a wide range of needs and risks, ranging from health and education issues to a host of protection concerns, efforts to meet these needs should be exerted by actors at all levels. At the level of the community, existing social structures such as the diwan and informal women’s gatherings can be strengthened so that community leaders may take a more active role in the protection of their children.

Since many Dom have Lebanese nationality, they are entitled to access services but the extent of this access is limited due to lack of awareness within the community and discriminatory attitudes outside. Therefore, it is equally important to engage national and local governmental structures, for example the Ministry of Social Affairs and the local Social Development Centres, as key actors in ensuring Dom children’s rights to services, identity and protection.

It is also essential for local and international NGO actors to network and engage in partnerships, so that the necessary expertise and resources are mobilized in order to meet the needs of the Dom and their children.

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