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In this gripping and eye-opening novel, two Syrian refugee teens trying to make a living on the street corners of Beirut must decide how far they’re willing to go to make a home for their family in an unwelcoming country.

Thirteen-year-old Hadi Toma and his family are displaced. At least that’s what the Lebanese government calls them and the thousands of other Syrian refugees that have flooded into Beirut. But as Hadi tries to earn money to feed his family by selling gum on the street corner, he learns that many people who travel the city don’t think they’re displaced—they think that they don’t belong in this country either. Each day he hears insults, but each day he convinces himself they don’t matter, approaching the cars again and again. He hardly dares to dream anymore that this might change.

But then Hadi meets Malek, who has been instructed to work on the same corner. Malek, who talks about going to school and becoming an engineer. But Malek is new to the streets, and Kamal, the man who oversees many of the local street vendors, tells Malek he must work the corner…alone. And people who don’t follow Kamal’s orders don’t last long.

Now Hadi is forced to make a choice between engaging in illegal activities or letting his family starve. Can the boys find a way out of their impossible situation, or will the dream of something greater than their harsh realities remain stubbornly out of reach?

Chapter 1 1
Hadi Saleh was sitting on a stack of concrete blocks. He was leaning forward, looking down, the hood of his jacket pulled over his head. He could feel drops of rain pat against his shoulders and he could see the splashes on the wet sidewalk near his feet. The wheels of cars rolled slowly past him, sloshing out little currents of water against the curb. He crossed his arms against his chest to stay as warm as he could, and he waited. He knew, without thinking about it, how long it took until the light changed and the cars stopped, knew he had only a few more seconds to himself before he would have to face the drivers again. Still, he waited. A few drivers always ran the red light, and then the intermittent blast of car horns would turn into a full, wild blare.

It was always the same: honking, yelling, and frantic drivers maneuvering through the nightmare traffic, stopping only when they had no other choice. But finally the wheels did stop rolling, and Hadi got up. He walked around to the driver’s side of the first car in line. He pulled cardboard packages of gum from his jacket pocket—Chiclets in four flavors: cinnamon, spearmint, fruit, and peppermint. He fanned out the boxes on his palms close to the window so the driver could see the choices. But the woman inside didn’t look at him; she stared straight ahead. It was the usual thing.

So Hadi walked over to the first car in the inside lane, and he held the gum out again, this time on the passenger side. This driver, a young man, glanced at him, then shook his head. Hadi didn’t say anything, didn’t plead. He had tried that in the beginning, long ago, and found it was a waste of his time. He walked to the next car, and the next, back and forth between the two lanes.

An older man with a stubbly beard and tired eyes glanced toward him from one of the cars. His window was halfway open, even in the rain. He was smoking, holding his cigarette close to the window so the breeze drew the smoke up and out of the car. When Hadi stopped and presented his packages of gum, the man said without looking at Hadi, in a low, hostile voice, “Why do you do this every day? No one wants your gum.” Hadi turned to walk away, but he heard the man say, “You Syrian pigs need to get out of our country. All of you.”

Hadi didn’t respond, didn’t even give the man’s words a second thought. He heard such things every day. Words didn’t change what he had to do.

The clock in his head was telling him that the stoplight would soon turn green and the cars would start to move. Already, drivers who were nine and ten back from the intersection were beginning to honk. He had no idea why they thought that would speed things up. He made one last offer, got another headshake, then cut between two cars to the sidewalk and walked down the little slope to the corner, back to his stack of concrete blocks.

Hadi sat down and leaned forward. He listened to the patting of the rain on his hood again. At least the storm was light today. Rain came often to Beirut in the winter, sometimes falling in torrents. And even when it didn’t rain, days were cold, sometimes windy. He was wearing a sweatshirt under his rain jacket—one that had been given to him by a charity organization in his neighborhood—but his feet were freezing, his hands, his face. Still, he was relieved there was no flooding at the bottom of the hill today. The splashes from the cars weren’t reaching him.

Before long he heard the slowing of tires, and the crazy honking started again. Hadi looked up, waited a few more seconds. There was a cabstand to the south, directly across the street. Cabbies sat there and smoked and talked. Most of them were Lebanese, not Syrians, and they liked to give Hadi a hard time—mostly just teasing, but sometimes in filthy language. Hadi didn’t like them very much, but one of them, a man named Rashid, let him store his chewing gum in a locked cabinet in the cabstand. Hadi got along all right with Rashid, but he tried to avoid the other men.

Hadi got up, started again. He walked to each car. The drivers stared away from him, or they shook their heads. This time no one cursed him or insulted him. But that didn’t matter to Hadi. What mattered was that he sold no gum again.

Almost an hour went by before a woman, with her window already down, smiled and handed Hadi one thousand Lebanese pounds—the smallest bill the government printed. The woman chose the red box—cinnamon—and she said in Arabic, “Thank you, habibi. I hope you’re not too cold.”

The woman was pretty, and she was still smiling. She had called him “my love.”

Allah yehmik,” he said. “God protect you.”

She nodded, and he thanked her. “Chokran.” He walked away, and he felt better. He finally had some money—a thousand pounds, or lira, as they were also called. He needed ten or twelve thousand to have a decent day—fifteen or twenty thousand for a great day. But it had taken a long time to get this first sale. Rainy days were bad. Car windows were mostly rolled up, traffic was congested, and people were unhappy, even more than usual.

But the woman had been nice to him. That was something.

The next hour was a little better. He received a five-hundred-pound coin from an older man who simply gave it to him without taking the gum, and a young man gave him two one-thousand-pound bills. Not often did anyone give him so much. But another man hissed at him, “I can smell you from here. You should stay in the sewer, where you belong.”

The rain let up after a time, but Hadi still looked at the sidewalk, not at the cars, and he listened for them to stop. Maybe, with the sun peeking out, people would be happier. Maybe more of them would buy from him. But there was no telling. Some days were better than others. “Inshallah,” his father always said. “God willing.” But his father was never happy when Hadi came to him at the end of a day with only five or six thousand pounds—God willing or not. That much would buy a package of flat bread and a little rice, but it would leave nothing for other expenses. Hadi and his father had to earn enough each day to buy food for nine in the Saleh family, but they also had to save each day to pay for rent and electricity. The rent for their single room, for a month, was 240,000 Lebanese pounds, and there was nothing cheaper anywhere in Beirut.

Hadi wished that he could sleep for a little while. His brain felt numb—dulled by the daily buzz of tires on pavement, deadened to the curses he heard. Every day he saw Lebanese children walking by on their way to school. They laughed and made jokes with each other. He sometimes wondered what that would be like, to sit in school—not out in the rain—and read books, learn things. But it didn’t help to wonder; he was better off letting his mind drift, not thinking too much.

But then he spotted a car he knew. It was the couple he called “the foreigners” because they didn’t speak much Arabic. They always gave him money, and they didn’t take any gum. So he stood, waited, and when the light changed, walked directly to their car. It was what he needed today: to hear them greet him with the clumsy Arabic they knew and to see their happiness. Today they handed him not only a thousand pounds but a shawarma sandwich. They gave him something to eat fairly often, once a week or so.

The foreign man always dressed neatly, looked like a teacher, a grandfather. He was a small man with a gentle voice. His wife was more lively. She would lean toward the driver’s-side window and tell him, “Nice to see you, Hadi.” She had white hair, but she didn’t seem old. Her voice was strong. He remembered a grandmother like that, his mother’s mother, back in Syria. She had lived in a village in the mountains, and when his family had visited, she had always fed them lots of good food. She baked the best sweets he had ever tasted. He sometimes wondered whether he would see her again. Mama said she was getting old.

“Too bad for rain,” the foreign woman said.

“Yes,” Hadi told her. “But a little water won’t melt me.”

It was what Baba often said, but Hadi could see that the woman didn’t understand. Still, she smiled and said, “We see you tomorrow.”

“Yes. Thank you for the shawarma. Allah yebarkek. May God prosper you.” He didn’t smile very often, but he smiled now as he listened to the man say something that didn’t sound Arabic but sounded friendly. Hadi waved to them as they drove away, and then he walked back to his seat by the corner. He ate a few bites of the shawarma, savoring it slowly. He would only eat half and take the rest home. If he didn’t earn much today, he could share his sandwich with his younger brother Khaled, who was always hungry and didn’t seem to be growing the way he should.

The clouds gradually broke up and the sun shone brightly at times. Most people were still turning him down, but the clearing weather and those few bites of the sandwich made everything seem a little better.

Early in the afternoon Hadi saw a boy standing on a corner on the west side of the five-way intersection. He watched as the boy crossed the street. He was taller than Hadi, and older. His hair was slick and black, but the tone of his skin was lighter than Hadi’s. He was carrying a big plastic bundle. It was the kind that Hadi had seen filled with packages of tissues.

But now the cars in front of Hadi had stopped. So he made his usual walk up the slight hill, back and forth between lanes, once again offering his gum at each car window. No one wanted any, and no one said much to him, so Hadi crossed to the sidewalk and started back to his spot. But now the tall boy was standing at the corner, waiting. Hadi didn’t like the look of this.

As Hadi approached, the boy smiled. “Marhaba,” he said. “My name’s Malek.”

Hadi didn’t respond. He didn’t know what the boy wanted.

“Kamal told me I should work on this corner.”

“This is my corner,” Hadi said.

“From now on it’s mine,” Malek said, still smiling. “Maybe Kamal will give you a different one.”

“I don’t know who Kamal is, and I’m not leaving my corner.” Hadi and his father had taken a bus to this side of Beirut almost two years back, and they had decided together that this was a good intersection for Hadi to work. Once in a while another boy or girl had shown up and worked on one of the other corners in the intersection, but no one had stayed long, and no one had ever questioned Hadi’s right to his place.

Malek’s smile faded. He looked confused. “I thought Kamal assigned all the corners,” he said.

Hadi thought he knew what was going on. There were gangs in Lebanon that moved in on neighborhoods and took control. They claimed ownership of the streets, and they placed boys and girls—now mostly Syrian refugees, though it hadn’t always been that way—on the corners to beg for money or to sell things, and they took much of the money the kids earned. Hadi and his father had learned about this when they had first arrived in Beirut, but most of the gangs operated in Hamra and other expensive areas. It was why Baba had chosen Bauchrieh, on the northeast side of the city. No gangs had bothered them there.

Hadi looked Malek straight on. “I’m telling you, this is my corner. I’m not leaving.”

Malek nodded, and for no reason that Hadi understood, he smiled again. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “It looks to me like plenty of cars stop at this light. I’ll take one lane and you take the other. If we get to the last cars in line, we can cross over. You have gum and I have tissues. So we won’t be a bother to each other.”

“I know lots of the drivers here,” Hadi said. “They know me. It’s my corner.”

“I understand. But if I leave, I’ll have to tell Kamal that you stopped me from working. I know for sure he won’t like that.”

Hadi knew what Malek was talking about. He had heard about beatings—even a street boy that someone had found in a garbage dumpster, dead. But Hadi also had his family to think of. It was all he could do to make enough money to buy a little food for them. He couldn’t take a chance on some of his money going to this new boy. So he looked hard into Malek’s eyes and said, “I work by myself.”

“Let’s try it my way, and I won’t tell Kamal that you stayed. If he finds out, he might make you leave, but if you get rid of me, you’ll definitely be in trouble.”

Hadi stared at this smiling boy. He didn’t seem like the street children he knew. He talked more. He was wearing a jacket that looked new, not faded and worn like the ones the charity houses handed out.

“Have you ever worked on the streets before?” Hadi asked.

“No. Maybe you can teach me some tricks. What works best?”

Hadi shook his head. The guy didn’t know anything at all. “There are no tricks,” Hadi told him. “You offer the tissues. Some want them. Most don’t.”

“But I’m good at talking people into things.” He laughed. “I’m good-looking, too. All the girls at my school in Syria liked me. I can probably sell a lot of tissues to the women who come by.”

This boy was cocky. He had no idea what he was facing. Hadi liked to think what a day on the corner would do to him. Maybe one day would convince him not to come back. But he only told Malek, “No one cares how good-looking you are.”

“You sound like you’re Syrian too,” Malek said. “What city did you come from?”

Hadi didn’t want this conversation, but he found himself answering. “Aleppo.”

Malek nodded, and he looked almost solemn for the first time. “You got bombed a lot, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” But Hadi didn’t like to think about those days.

“Did you lose your house?”

Hadi nodded, hesitated, but then said, “My house. My school. My whole neighborhood.”

“Did your family all get out?”

“Yes. But we lost everything in our apartment. Everything.” He thought of the days when his family had had a living room and a television set and Mama had had a kitchen. More than anything, he missed the food his family had eaten back then.

“When did you come to Lebanon?”

“A few years ago. I was eight or nine, I think.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“Since I was eleven. I’m thirteen now.”

“I’m fourteen,” Malek said. “We came to Beirut last year.”

That was more than Hadi needed to know. He wasn’t going to be friends with this boy who wanted to take his corner. Still, he found himself asking, “Where from?”

“A village near Damascus.”

“Did you get bombed?”

“Yes.” He hesitated, and his voice sounded more serious than before. “We had bombs falling all around us. We were scared all the time. We hated to go to bed at night. We were always afraid an attack would come. And then it did. One night our town got blown away. Our family didn’t get hurt, but we knew a lot of people who got killed.”

Hadi looked into Malek’s face and could see that they understood something about each other. He saw the leftover fear in Malek’s eyes, knew there was more to him than he had first thought.

They were silent for a few seconds, but then Malek asked, “Which lane of cars do you want?” Hadi thought he knew what Malek was thinking: that they had both said enough about the war. It was better not to think about those days now.

“I’ll stay with this outside lane, and you take the middle,” Hadi said. “But I’ll watch for people I know—who always buy from me—and I’ll cross lanes when I see them.”

“Sure. Just tell them to buy my tissues too.”

Hadi didn’t like the idea of doing that. People only had so much to offer, and he couldn’t afford for them to give to Malek and not to him. Still, he said, “Okay.”

“So, what’s your name?” Malek asked as they waited for the cars to slow.

“Hadi.”

Malek pulled two packages of tissues from the bundle. “All right, Hadi. Yallah,” he said. “Let’s go.” Malek held a package of tissues in each hand, and when the cars stopped, he strode to the middle lane. Hadi heard him talking through the closed window, telling a man that he had tissues to sell—as if the man couldn’t see that—and then saying that the tissues were high quality, “soft and yet strong.” He was probably smiling, which was the worst thing he could do.

Hadi, by then, was working his way up the outer lane. He was reaching lots of cars, not taking time to make an annoying sales pitch. But Hadi sold no chewing gum, and he got off the street as the cars started to move. When he and Malek met back at the corner, Malek was laughing. “I didn’t sell anything. Did you?”

“No.”

“Is it like that a lot?”

“Almost always.”

“I’ll figure it out. There must be a good way to do it. Why don’t you say anything to the people?”

“It doesn’t help. They either want what you sell or they don’t.”

“I can’t believe that. There must be some good things to say.”

This was going to be difficult. What Hadi missed already was time to sit on his stack of concrete blocks, time to let his mind go blank.

This was one of the busiest intersections in this part of the city, with businesses down the street to the west and more shops running off on a diagonal street to the northwest. Everything was congested west of this corner: too many cars, too many people walking in the traffic lanes because cars were parked on the sidewalks. That was why this corner was best.

When the cars stopped, the boys went back to their work. Hadi could still hear Malek begging the people, but his voice sounded happy, not miserable, even though he was now telling everyone that he had brothers and sisters who were hungry.

Hadi did manage to sell one package of gum. But when he turned to see how Malek was doing, he saw the boy step away from a car just as a scooter buzzed down the street between the lanes.

“Malek!” he shouted. “Watch out!”

Malek jumped back as the scooter shot by, missing him by only inches.

Hadi hurried to him. “I should have told you that,” he said. “Never step out from the cars without looking. Scooters and motorcycles don’t stay in lanes.”

But Malek didn’t seem fazed at all. “People in this country pay no attention to traffic laws, and the police don’t seem to care,” he said.

“There’s a policeman on this corner sometimes—a man named Samir—and he blows his whistle and yells at people, but they pay no attention. He has no way to stop them and they know it.”

Malek was laughing again. “Well, that was a close one,” he said. “Thanks for looking out for me.”

But Hadi didn’t like that. He wasn’t looking out for the boy. They weren’t partners. They were just working on the same corner. And it was still Hadi’s corner.
Photograph by Doug Martin

Dean Hughes is the author of more than eighty books for young readers, including the popular sports series Angel Park All-Stars, the Scrappers series, the Nutty series, the widely acclaimed companion novels Family Pose and Team PictureSearch and Destroy, and Four-Four-Two. His novel Soldier Boys was selected for the 2001 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age list. Dean Hughes and his wife, Kathleen, have three children and nine grandchildren. They live in Midway, Utah.

More books from this author: Dean Hughes