A few months ago in Paris, a Syrian refugee named Anas Alayoubi saw a 19-year-old woman begging for money on the streets. She was wearing a hijab and carrying a baby in her arms. Immediately sympathetic to her plight, he approached her.
“I asked her where is she from. She said she is a Kurd from Syria. So I started speaking Kurdish to her,” Alayoubi recalled in a recent interview with Fusion.
That’s when it became clear to him that the woman was only pretending. “Her eyes got wide, and she ran away from me,” he said. “These people are liars and are using Syria's name to make money.”
For several months now, Alayoubi, 36, has been documenting the movements of more than 50 families begging on the streets in Paris whom he suspects to be frauds. They claim to be desperate Syrian refugees, but Alayoubi believes they are imposters, cashing in on public empathy and ugly stereotypes as they shake down even true refugees like himself.
The notion of beggars posing as Syrian refugees has been documented before by Syrian citizen journalists in Turkey.
Now Alayoubi has launched a social media crusade to unmask the true identity of the Paris beggars—and to fight back against the image they portray of Syrian refugees as unproductive members of society. He and a group of fellow Syrian refugees are planning a campaign and rally in the coming weeks. For the event, they’re printing T-shirts and flyers that read, “Syrians don’t beg. Syrians work.”
“I have no problem with people begging on the street—but not in my name, and not in the name of my people,” said Anas Ammounah, 27, another Syrian refugee in Paris who has joined Alayoubi's campaign.
Alayoubi said he’s been beaten up and threatened while confronting some of the beggars. A few weeks ago, he said, he approached a group of beggars camping in the Porte De la Villette station of the Paris metro. “They spoke broken Arabic,” said Alayoubi, a giveaway that they were not Syrian.
So he started taking videos of them. “They ganged up on me and beat me up,” Alayoubi said. According to a police report reviewed by Fusion, Alayoubi was admitted into the hospital for head and back injuries on April 12. The report states he was attacked by a man and woman claiming to be beggars. “I thank God that they didn’t have knives,” he said in the interview with Fusion, which was conducted in Arabic.
At least one group of beggars, Alayoubi believes, is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “They left Syria and decided to take up begging on the streets of Paris as a business,” Alayoubi said.
At first, he tried to help them. He explained to the beggars that the French government gives Syrian refugees priority when it comes to money, food, and shelter assistance. “Any Syrian refugee can dial 115 [an emergency shelter number] from any local phone booth, and he will get picked up by the people in charge to put him in a hotel and help him according to the situation,” said Alayoubi. “The French government does not throw anyone on the street.” He even contacted local French Syrian humanitarian organizations, which offered to help.
But instead of hearing his advice, the beggars cursed and attacked him, he said. As months went by, Alayoubi noticed that the beggars grew in number, and they began moving into high-class areas around the Champs-Elysees. He’s even seen some who have cars and driver’s licenses, he said. “They get into their cars and drive off after begging,” he said.
Alayoubi was appalled. To get out the word, he decided to hold up a sign at the local mosque informing French Arabs and Muslims that these were beggars taking advantage of the refugee crisis. On his sign he wrote in French and Arabic: “The French government is in charge of all Syrian refugees. The beggars asking in name of Syrians are swindlers.”
Ammounah, a college student, told a similar story of approaching an apparent beggar. “ I told him that I’m new in Paris and I needed money," he recalled. "He told me that I can beg on a busy corner for 3 hours and make around 500 euros." When Ammounah told the beggar he was single, the beggar came up with a quick solution. “He told me that he can rent me a woman and kids for three to four hours a day and I must split the profit with her 50/50,” he told Fusion.
In this video, Alayoubi is warning French Arabs and Muslims about fake beggars.
He also posted photos and videos online of the beggars. “Many Syrian refugees in Paris contacted me and want to help stand up to the beggars who are distorting the picture of Syrians in Europe,” said Alayoubi.
The Syrian college student is planning on getting a small camera as a disguise and joining the group of beggars in Paris “to unveil their true identities and the begging business they are managing."
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."