The trash collectors roam in every Ahwazi neighbourhoods, streets and alleyways in the early morning before the municipal garbage trucks arrive to empty the rubbish. Those bins filled with lots of household waste like packets, cardboard and worn-out items grab their attention. The trash collectors’ ‘tools’ consist of long iron bars with which they pick up the remnants and tear open and empty the bags, helping them to avoid being bitten by the rats and insects competing for these meagre scraps of trash, who will return to pick over the waste once they’re finished scavenging.
Anyone approaching the collectors while they sift through the garbage will find that they refuse to divulge the secrets of this bleak toil. The collectors, many of them children, whose faces and hands are filthy from the constant contact with fetid refuse clamber around in stinking piles of rotten vegetables, fruit peel, chicken bones, soiled diapers, toxic industrial waste and medical waste and every other kind of foul garbage, heedless of the pestilence and disease that are a constant danger. Many of these poor Ahwazi trash collectors have contracted various diseases due to this daily unprotected up-close exposure to every kind of putrid garbage. Their greatest gain comes from the rich and extravagant who throw away rubbish bags full of untouched food, leftovers and clothes.
These heartbreaking scenes of medieval squalor can be seen daily by anyone passing by the bins, skips and garbage dumps in villages, towns and cities in every area of the Ahwaz region. Indeed, these scenes are so common that they’ve become a stereotype deeply rooted in the minds of the cities-dwellers.
According to Salman Bawi, the local head of the administrative council for the village of Imam Hossein, 50 per cent of the villagers are engaged in garbage collection, travelling to many remote areas in Ahwaz to collect waste simply to survive. Many reports on social media in recent days have substantiated the truth of this terrible revelation.
Ironically, if predictably, this Ahwazi village, whose name was changed by the regime authorities from its local Ahwazi Arabic name to that of a religious figure venerated by the Shiite Islamic Republic’s theocratic regime has not benefited through this name change from any resulting reduction in the relentless ethnic oppression and state-sponsored impoverishment exercised against its local population.
Iranian regime’s Naseem newspaper in Karun City, Ahwaz acknowledged that more than 50% of Arab inhabitants in the Karun district search trash for food daily. They had been farmers, their lands illegally confiscated by #iran. Now they look for food or items to sell in the garbage. pic.twitter.com/kp6S9zUUsm
— Aaron Eitan Meyer (@aaronemeyer) September 14, 2020
The village is administratively affiliated to the recently recognised town of Karoon whose centre is Kut Abdullah, on the perimeter of Ahwaz city, the eponymous regional capital of the entire Ahwaz region. The village is situated in a barren desert area near a steel company and oil drilling companies whose pipes are mere metres from the villagers’ homes. Despite this proximity, the villagers are denied any but the most menial jobs at the companies; as with almost all jobs with Iranian state entities, these are withheld from the indigenous Ahwazi people, who are very deliberately kept in grinding poverty, despite the region being the home of 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran.
Image: Near an oil well that produces neither shade nor income for locals, and elderly Ahwazi woman carries garbage back to her nearby village, hoping to make enough for food to live another day.
Left with no option, half the villagers make a daily income of 20,000 to 30,000 tomans (between 50 and 70 US cents) by collecting and selling plastic and glass waste, an amount barely adequate for survival. Adding further insult to grotesque injury, the municipality whose negligence forces the people to live in this way are now forcing these desperate and impoverished people to pay a sum in monthly income tax in order to be allowed to collect plastic and waste. Those who refuse to pay this recently introduced municipal tax will be reported to police, who may arrest them and confiscate the pitiful three-wheeled handcarts used by these destitute peoples to transport the garbage they’ve collected.
The area where Imam Hussein village is located is so poor that barely anything is thrown away, with the village’s garbage collectors forced to go elsewhere to find rubbish to make their living. As Bawi, the aforementioned head of the Imam Hussein village council, told the state-run Fars news agency in a recent interview, “There is no trash in this area that people could collect and benefit from, so the people who live in this village go to others areas in Ahwaz city and collect trash from there.”
He revealed that the municipal authorities have told the garbage collectors that anyone wanting to continue collecting garbage must pay this subscription fee[tax] of 200,000 tomans (US $4.75, adding that he doesn’t know if this will be collected through monthly payments of 200 tomans (under half of one US cent) or through one annual payment. In both cases, these people, the poorest of the poor, struggling simply to survive, can’t afford it, but have no option.
The village council head explained that many of the local garbage collectors have paid the sum simply to avoid having the meagre carts and wagons that are their means of survival impounded, adding, “The municipality puts a label on the cart or tricycle of the people who pay the tax to show they’ve paid.”
Bawi said: “The population of the village is 1,700 to 800 people and about 400 families, of which 50 per cent of them make a living through garbage collection and only 10 per cent of the residents work in other jobs, probably in municipalities and companies.”
“I have to pay the monthly fee tax for trash collection.”
Jawad is one of the garbage collectors in Imam Hussein village, who provides bread for his two children as well as medicine for his bedridden wife through garbage collection. He revealed, “I have to pay 150,000 tomans per month to the national oil drilling company located on the Three Ways highway to Ahwaz airport to allow me to approach the trash area and scavenge in the garbage they throw away.”
“Garbage collection provides no real income for us,” Jawad continued, adding, “I have a tricycle to collect waste. If I don’t pay the monthly fee to that company, the officials of the company will inform the police of my tricycle number plate and the police will stop it.”
Jawad revealed that even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the authorities have not relented in their cruelty to the garbage collectors. “The company did not help us at the time of the coronavirus outbreak in terms of employing us or helping us with financial relief when I told them I had loan installments and I owed the bank four months.” He revealed that his wife’s disability was a direct result of the terrible living conditions resulting from poverty. “The roof of my house was dilapidated and collapsed, causing my wife’s spinal cord to be permanently damaged,” he explained, with his wife now unable to walk and Jawad now the sole breadwinner for the whole family.
“I have to go to faraway areas to collect trash materials,” Jawad explained. “Despite the hot weather and the outbreak of COVID-19, I carry my daughter in the tricycle and take her with me to different areas so that no one suspects me of being a trash collector and stop my tricycle. At the same time, my daughter helps me collect the trash materials like plastic, cans and anything worth selling.”
“I haven’t sent my children to school this year”
“I’ve been working as a trash collector for about seven years,” Jawad said, adding, “I haven’t paid any expenses to the oil drilling company yet, but my monthly fee for collecting trash discharged by the company is accumulating and I have been delayed for six months, and if my motorbike stops, I have to pay 200 tomans as a fine to the traffic police and 200 more tomans for releasing the motorcycle when it’s been impounded. But even on my best day I’ll earn 50,000 tomans.
The grinding poverty endured by Ahwazis is passed down from generation to generation, with parents unable to afford school costs due to absolute poverty, leaving more and more families trapped, like Jawad and his family, in a cycle of despair, living hand-to-mouth, with the subsequent lack of qualifications leaving their children at a disadvantage against their peers.
“Although the schools reopened, I haven’t sent my daughter (pictured below) and son to school this year because they are helping me and I have to earn more money to buy medicines and treatment for my wife’s spinal cord damage.”
The father, Jawad, says that he is so embarrassed by the situation that he conveyed that when they leave the house to go picking through trash, he even brings his daughter’s school bag so that the neighbours would think he is taking her to class.
The tragic deaths of Ahwazi children working in trash collection
One night in early August this year, three Ahwazi brothers, aged 11, 12 and 14, their family’s only breadwinners, were scavenging for plastic and other waste to sell around rubbish dumps in Ahwaz city.
Despite the late hours, their exhaustion and the searing 50-degree heat, the brothers from the deprived Kut Abdullah neighbourhood, the centre of Karoon town knew that they couldn’t go home until they’d gathered enough rubbish to sell.
At around midnight, they searching through bins at a local roadside when a fast car ploughed into the two youngest brothers, Ahmad and Mohammad Reza, leaving them severely injured. The oldest brother managed to jump out of its way. The car drove off, leaving the two younger brothers’ bodies at the roadside. By a feat of strength, the older brother managed to get his two siblings to the city’s Golestan Hospital, where they were immediately rushed to the intensive care unit. While the two injured brothers thankfully survived and were recently discharged, their impoverished family is unable to pay the medical bills, with local Ahwazi donors now raising money to pay for their treatment.
This is not an isolated case for the child garbage collectors of Ahwaz where children scavenging through trash at the side of the poorly lit streets are regularly hit by speeding drivers. On June 18 of this year, two 12-year-old Ahwazi garbage collectors died instantly when they were hit by a heavy truck while crossing the Ahwaz-Muhammarah late at night while returning from a long day’s scavenging.
The two boys, Moslem Kenani and Mehdi Heidari, had been lifelong best friends and neighbours from the deprived Malashiyeh neighbourhood of Ahwaz city. The truck driver, who had the decency to stop and rush back, had not seen them before hitting them due to the poor lighting on the motorway.
Like so many of their peers, the boys, who had been forced to quit school due to their families’ desperate poverty, scraped a living to help feed their parents and siblings by scavenging through rubbish for dry bread and collecting bottles and cans to sell for scrap.
In mid-August, another little boy, also from Kut Abdullah, who was searching through roadside bins late at night with his sister, died shortly after being hit by a car; again, the callous car driver drove away after hitting him, leaving the little boy’s broken body in the road.
Image: While collecting garbage to sell in midnight, this Ahwazi boy was killed by a driver who fled the scene.
Not long after that, one month ago, an 11-year-old boy from the city’s Al-Harsheh (Gavmishehabad in Farsi) neighbourhood died as a result of being hit by a car while collecting garbage and cardboard cartons left by vendors at a roadside market, with the driver again fleeing the scene of the accident. Last year, a 15-year-old child was engaged in painting a street sidewalk when he was hit by a car. On that occasion too, the driver fled and the child died.
The lives of these Ahwazi children don’t seem to matter to any state institution, with their tragic deaths becoming a normal event, unremarked and un-mourned by the authorities. Motorists are equally cavalier, knowing that Ahwazi children’s lives are viewed as expendable by the regime and the authorities, and that no police case will be opened if they happen to kill one.
Commenting on this heartbreaking situation, Iman Mojaddam, a social rights activist from the Kut Abdullah neighbourhood, said that the Karoon city of which Kut Abdullah is the centre, has a population of 220,000, mostly low-income and extremely poor people. The poverty of families there is so severe that most are deprived of essentials such as refrigerators and air conditioners in temperatures that regularly exceed 50 degrees, with most Ahwazi local children often forced to work alongside their parents from a young age simply to survive. In some cases, due to poverty, girls are forced to marry at a very young age simply to take the burden of care off their parents’ shoulders with the dowry providing extra money to feed the other children. Malnutrition is endemic, with many families managing only one meal a day and often going without food at all.
For Ahwazis, living in a two-tier society where Persian Iranians have rights and relative wealth while the indigenous Ahwazis scrabble for survival, the incoming Iranians are hostile foreign colonists who take their wealth and leave them to die, treating those whose lands they occupy as interlopers in their own lands. This was reflected in a comment by Mojaddam, who said: “These are no foreign nationals among Ahwazi working children, but we are strangers in our own city.”
She explained that most of the children in Kut Abdullah have no option but to work. “We don’t have statistics on working children in the area, but there are so many that their presence can be seen everywhere – manning the stalls of greengrocers and fishmongers, working washing cars at traffic lights, or selling flowers and fortune-telling on the streets. In general, every store and shopping centre you visit has at least one child, often many children, working there.”
Mojaddam pointed out that the main cause behind the prevalence of child labour across the Ahwaz region is the lack of employment opportunities for parents, noting that despite the regime treating Ahwaz as an industrial zone where it’s established massive oil and gas fields and refineries, along with steel firms and vast sugarcane plantations with associated processing plants, the indigenous Ahwazis are denied jobs, which go to Persian Iranians who are offered incentives, including excellent wages and specially built housing, to move to the region.
The activist added that the number of older boys among the street children is higher than that of their female counterparts; while many Ahwazi younger girls work in the field of waste collection alongside their male peers, after the age of 14 or 15 girls are rarely seen working on the streets due to the conservative culture in the Ahwazi areas.
Commenting dismissively on the work of state institutions such as the Welfare and Relief Committee in supporting child laborers and their families, the activist said: “These organisations may be active, but here the administrative system from the governorate to other organs is weak and indifferent and addresses these issues selectively.”
She added that the meagre supplementary payments and pension paid by these supportive institutions to low-income families is inadequate and irregular; while sums equivalent to between US 1.60 to $4.75 are paid to some families every two or three months, these are not enough to make any significant difference or to enable them to send their children to school rather than sending them out to work.
Mojaddam noted that the authorities are indifferent to the deaths and injuries among children hit by cars while they’re working, with these accidents usually occurring in areas with no CCTV cameras and the police being as indifferent to Ahwazi children’s suffering as to that of Ahwazi adults.
To conclude, the poverty in Ahwaz is direly unthinkable. Children cannot go to school and have to go around helping families collect trash just to survive. The responsibility for that is squarely on the Iranian regime which engages in racist and discriminatory practices against the Ahwazi population, oppresses the residents in various ways, and ensures lack of literacy, unemployment, and poverty. The funding is divested away from the region and ends up being subsumed by corrupt regime elites or else spent on wars, terrorism, and various illegal programs. These outrageous photos should be front-page news in all of the international media, but the inclusion of Iran in international institutions without serious repercussions for its human rights abuses and racist practices continues. While activists riot over ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the West, Ahwazis lives not only don’t matter, but their existence is virtually unknown in these circles.
By Rahim Hamid
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.