Mohannad Al Nader
Mahmoud is sixteen years old and the eldest of four siblings in his Syrian family whose provider was injured and disabled during the war. Mahmoud became the breadwinner of his refugee family in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. He works at a restaurant for ten dollars a day from seven in the morning to nine at night. Despite the work’s difficult conditions and the responsibility placed on his shoulders, he feels proud to be supporting his family. Difficult conditions have forced many Syrian refugee children to work long hours for low wages. In addition to the danger that they face during their work, they miss going to school and the education that could make their future brighter.
This problem has reached an alarming level. In its report “Syrian Children: A lost generation?”, UNICEF estimates that one out of every ten Syrian refugee children work to provide for their families. Many similar child welfare organizations have reported the issue of child labor as the most wide-spread and complicated of issues facing those children. Reports have found that many families partially rely on the income that children bring in and that roughly half of all school age children work part or full time or at odd jobs that change from day to day. A child protection activist states “If you walk down the street, you’ll see Syrian children working everywhere.”
Given that child labor is illegal, business owners often hide this fact, fearing legal consequences. Also, refugee families hide the fact that their children work, out of fear of being noticed by humanitarian organizations and subsequently losing their aid allowances.
According to reports and studies published by humanitarian organizations, there are more boys in child labor than girls. Boys work in a variety of jobs including in restaurants, shops, bakeries, tailors, textile factories, and barber shops. Bassam, aged fifteen years old, speaks about his work“I work in a restaurant. I stay there all the days of the week except Sunday, which I spend with my family of five brothers and my mother. My father was arrested in Syria and we don’t know his fate.”
“I make thirty Turkish liras per day and sleep in the restaurant because my shift begins at seven in the morning until eleven at night.” One can find many children selling bottles of water and tissues at street intersections and traffic lights. Thirteen year old Hassan says, “I sell tissues and water to make money to help my mother pay rent for the room that we live in with my younger siblings.” There are a number of girls who work in clothes stores, or grocery stores, vegetable stores or beauty salons. Some do field or house work. Hiba, a seventeen year old girl, fled from Aleppo with her family to Turkey and works in a grocery store selling Syrian products. She says, “I work to help my family and provide for my little siblings so that they can continue their studies.”
Many children work for long hours in dangerous environments or occupations. Many, such as those working in construction or farming, are exposed to risks because of heavy machinary, burning heat, and pesticides. Those who sell goods through car windows at busy intersections face a big risk ofan accident. Stories have surfaced of a boy who was burned by hot oil in a restaurant and another who was beaten by his boss more than once.
Child labor is directly related to the basic needs of the refugee family, families that fled from the chaos of war, carrying just basic clothing, important documents and photos across borders and fields. Many Syrians suddenly lost most of their savings, possessions, and livelihoods. Their lives have become a state of loss and they face an unknown future. As such, helping their families is the main reason children work. The income that the child brings in is mainly used to pay for rent and food. Despite the fact that some families receive aid from humanitarian and governmental organizations, this aid does not cover the family’s needs, which renders many of these refugee families incapable of finding an alternative to forcing their children into the workforce.
There are some fathers who are old, sick, or were injured during the war and physically unable to work. In this case, the children are the only ones who can work and secure some basic needs of the family. Other fathers have legal or social reasons keeping them from working themselves. Some of the parents and children said that finding work for children was easier than for adults. One of the mothers said that the reason her son works is because her husband was unable to find work. “It is possible that the child can handle mistreatment and insults, but the men cannot. As a result, men stay at home and the children work.” Abu Mohamed (father of five children) from the area of Kafr-Zeita is embarrassed because he has not found a job or stable work while his son of fourteen years works at a restaurant from eight in the morning until nine at night. He says, “all of the savings we brought with us are gone. Living here is very expensive.” He was proud to have been able to carry his son’s school diploma during their journey. It pointed to the academic excellence of his son who now works, having left school.
In truth, it must be noted that, in many families, the mother carries the responsibility of the family. Because the father was either killed or arrested during the war or has suffered an injury that prevents him fulfilling his familial duties. These mothers resort to their children to help secure the necessities for the family, such as food and rent. Fourteen year old Saleem, proud of what he’s made, says, “My little brother goes to school and I work in a restaurant to make some money to help my mother secure what we need.”
There is a huge responsibility placed on the shoulders of the working boys and girls…the anxieties of adulthood has replaced their childhood fears, as they will be forced to grow up faster than other children.