BEIRUT, Lebanon — Abed Al Allah was 6 years old when he buried his cousins’ dismembered bodies.
He had been sitting outside his home in Homs, Syria, in 2011 when he heard a warplane swoop low in preparation to drop a bomb. He ran away just in time — but his three teenage cousins weren’t as lucky. When Al Allah returned, he found their body parts. In shock, he helped load the corpses into a car, dig a grave, and bury them.
Fast-forward six years, and Al Allah, his parents, and four siblings are now refugees in Lebanon. He still has nightmares about that day. But astonishingly, that’s not what keeps him up at night.
“My biggest fear is I won’t have work,” the 13-year-old says. “If I’m sick or something, I can’t support my family, my parents, or myself.”
That’s because Al Allah spends eight hours a day, seven days a week, picking cucumbers and tomatoes in a field in the northern city of Akkar. He works in up to 104-degree heat, making $1 an hour and getting yelled at by his boss if he doesn’t move fast enough.
When he lies down at night, his back aches from carrying 35-pound barrels of vegetables. Once he falls asleep, nightmares of the Syrian war play in his head. He wishes he could get psychological help to stop the dreams — or even just go to school or play outside like other kids his age.
That’s not likely, for a simple but profoundly depressing reason: Al Allah and about 280,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon have been forced into child labor, according to UNICEF. Many of these kids lost their loved ones and homes in their country’s brutal civil war. They fled to Lebanon for safety — only to find it comes at a very high price.
Syrian refugees as young as 5 years old are working long hours, often in hazardous conditions — using dangerous machinery in factories, being abused by employers, and working under the hot sun in agricultural fields. They’re missing out on the chance for an education, and the grueling nature of the work leaves them little time to process, or heal from, the emotional and psychological wounds they’ve suffered.
Mohammad Abdul Razzak was 9 years old when he witnessed ISIS beheading men on the streets of Syria. Now, at 12, the refugee still hasn’t had time to process what happened. Instead, he spends 12 hours a day, seven days a week, working at an aluminum shop to help his family survive. Razzak is also physically at risk, using dangerous equipment like power drills to build windows and doors.Lisa Khoury
They are not living their childhoods as they should because for them, life is now just about getting money and putting bread on the table,” says Ahmed Bayram, a spokesperson for Save the Children, an international aid group working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. “So in the long term, we worry that we’re losing a whole generation of minds and talents.”
And with more Syrians pouring into Lebanon as the civil war grinds on, more children are expected to join this lost generation, adding a grim new dimension to one of the world’s most horrific humanitarian catastrophes.
Syrian parents feel they have no choice but to send their kids to work
When we think of child labor, we often think of countries like China, where stories about children working on products bound for the US are common.
But it’s a problem that extends deep into the Middle East. Child labor has always been a problem in Lebanon because of its dismal economy and lack of effective government oversight. Now the Syrian crisis — one of the most high-profile catastrophes in the world — has caused it to reach alarming new levels.
Take Omar Khaled, an 11-year-old in Akkar. He started working three months ago for one reason: He was hungry.
“I decided to leave school,” he says. “We didn’t have money to buy bread.”
Khaled’s parents came to Lebanon because it’s close to home, has a similar culture, and — most importantly — isn’t at war. What they didn’t realize is the country’s weak economy meant there were so few jobs that they’d have to send their young son to work.
Want to help the Children of Syria? Donate today help change their tomorrow: http://childrensfoodproject.org/cifpsite/donate/
Update by Lisa Khoury of Vox Media.