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 180,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon have been forced into child labor, according to UNICEF (the UN agency initially said the number was 280,000; after this article was first published, a UNICEF spokesperson provided a newer, and lower, estimate). 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.
“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.
About 1.5 million Syrians, or a quarter of the Lebanese population, have taken refuge in Lebanon since the crisis began in 2011, according to the Lebanese government. That’s on top of the nearly 300,000 Palestinian and Iraqi refugees Lebanon is already hosting.
To avoid having foreigners take jobs away from its own citizens, the Lebanese government has created a restriction: Syrians can work in agriculture, construction, and cleaning — all low-paying, temporary jobs. Otherwise, they need a work permit.
For well-educated Syrians, like doctors and engineers, that’s often impossible to get. So it’s no surprise that 71 percent of the 1.1 million Syrians registered with the United Nations in Lebanon live below the poverty line.
Once Syrians do find work, life can be expensive. Unlike Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, Lebanon doesn’t have formal Syrian refugee camps. Instead, Syrians can live in one of the country’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps — but they have to pay an average rent of $200 a month, a large amount here.
There is one saving grace: aid from the UN. But as more refugees enter Lebanon, the global organization may have to cut critical programs.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, sent out a warning to donors last month, saying it needs $116 million to help Syrians in Lebanon. Otherwise, by this winter, 174,000 households won’t get money for heat, 65,000 families won’t receive lifesaving health care, and 30,000 families will be cut off from monthly cash.
“We are quickly running out of resources,” says Dana Sleiman, a UNHCR spokesperson. “And when families face destitute economic conditions, they’re more prone to resorting to what we call negative coping mechanisms, such as sending off their kids to work."
Child labor is illegal in Lebanon, but the law is not enforced. Actually, many employers prefer to hire children for their cheap labor.
Firas Saroufim owns Smart Phones Mobile and Accessories in Zgharta, Lebanon, a city about 55 miles north of Beirut. He pays a 10-year-old Syrian child $19 a week to sell lottery tickets and merchandise, and run errands — compared to the $350 to $400 he’d pay an adult to do the same job.
“If I need anything, he goes and brings it and I pay him,” Saroufim says. “You can’t find a Lebanese boy who wants to do this work. It’s hard.”
Young refugees are forced to work, not go to school
Ahmad Mohammad doesn’t know how old he is. But he does know he needs to feed his herd of sheep.
It’s noon in Akkar, which is home to more than 104,000 Syrian refugees, and the blistering sun is hitting Mohammad’s dark skin, which is crawling with flies. He’s sitting on dirt, leaning his back against one of the sheep around him. A ripped cigarette box and cut-up water bottle are beside him — he calls them his toys.
Mohammad guesses he’s 3 years old, but he looks more like 6.
He’s one of the estimated 155,000 Syrian children that UNICEF says have been left out of Lebanon’s formal education system. They’re dropping out of school — or not enrolling at all — because of several challenges: limited classroom space, bullying, language barriers, and transportation costs. Others, like Mohammad, skip class for a different reason: full-time work.
UNICEF is desperately trying to educate these kids. It's helped several NGOs open unlicensed schools across Lebanon — reaching about 20,000 Syrians, according to the Lebanese Ministry of Education. Classes are offered in both the morning and afternoon, so child laborers can attend before or after work.
“At least after they come back from work, they can spend four hours in a classroom learning their ABCs and 123s so we put them on the right track,” says Salam Abdulmunem, a UNICEF spokesperson.
But they’re not getting on track. These programs aren’t certified by the Lebanese government, so students will never have proof of education. That means no diploma, no college, and — ultimately — no career.
So when you ask Syrian kids what they want to be when they grow up, many pause and don’t know what to say. Hamzi El Hassan, a fruit and vegetable picker, has stopped allowing himself to dream.
"I want to be a doctor or a teacher, but I feel like in my life I’m just going to pick oranges,” the 13-year-old says. “I’m not going to get any further."
For children not getting formal or informal education, their futures don’t look bright.
For instance, 7-year-old Bakir Belo doesn’t know how to spell his name. He’s one of the 42 percent of children who are either homeless or spend their days working on Lebanon’s teeming streets that are illiterate, according to a UNICEF study. About 40 percent of those children have never attended school.
Every night, Belo’s dad sends him to El Mina, a city on the coast of Lebanon, with a bouquet of roses. Belo spends about seven hours trying to sell them.
“My dad says, ‘Don’t come home until you sold them all,’” he tells me.
When two Syrian boys approach with flowers and candy they’re selling, Belo tells them to get away.
“You donkey,” he scolds. “This is my sale.”
Low pay, long hours, and dangerous conditions
As El Hassan, the 13-year-old who says he’ll never do more than pick oranges in his life, lies down at night, he feels the strain of the 40-pound crates he carries in the field. The pain starts in his shoulders and shoots down to his lower back.
He’ll have to push through the pain, though. He’s back at it again in the morning, and he can’t miss work like last month, when the sweltering sun gave him a fever for three days. That made him miss out on the 50 cents to $1 he makes an hour.
“I work to support my family,” El Hassan says. “My dad doesn’t have paperwork, so he can’t work.”
Children who take on the role of breadwinner often take on a physical burden, too. Many work in dangerous conditions up to 12 hours a day and are paid $2 to $6 a day on average, according to UNICEF. The money isn’t for them to keep. Instead, they sustain illnesses and injuries to feed their families, cover rent, or pay off their parents’ debts.
Kamal Kaneen drives a motorcycle to deliver groceries for a supermarket — without a helmet. The 12-year-old came to Lebanon after his home in Syria was destroyed in an explosion. At first, he went to school and didn’t work. But when his dad hurt his leg, Kaneen dropped out to take on 10-hour shifts, six days a week, for $33 a week.
“I wish he can focus on following his dreams, but I need him to work,” says Roukaya Ayoub, his mother. "He is our only source of income."
Belo, the 7-year-old who sells roses on the streets of El Mina, risks his life every time he dodges a moving car to make a sale. In fact, 30 percent of street-based children have been involved in traffic accidents, according to UNICEF’s study.
And then there are kids like 8-year-old Mustafa Soufan, who goes to El Mina’s boardwalk at night, when it’s busiest, and wanders the street alone. His dad sends him with a heavy basket of candy and nuts that hangs from Soufan's shoulders, his back aching as he tries to sell as much as possible.
Other children are abused by employers. Bayram, the spokesperson for Save the Children, says employers are committing child abuse simply by hiring a child. Some take it to the next level, though — yelling at the kids and even hitting them.
“This is one of the worst forms of child labor — where children are exposed to abuse, being threatened with your daily wage if you’re not working a full 10 hours,” Bayram says. “We meet children who are not allowed to have their sandwich with their friends in the shade for 10 minutes.”
A lost generation of Syrian children
Mohammad Abdul Razzak has a recurring nightmare: He sees ISIS make men get on their knees in the street. He sees the terrorists tie their victims' hands behind their backs. And then he sees them pull out swords and behead them.
It’s a scene he witnessed in Syria three years ago.
“I wake up scared and I jump up,” the 12-year-old refugee tells me.
Razzak doesn’t receive psychological help. He doesn’t go to school either. Instead, he spends 12 hours a day, seven days a week, building windows and doors at an aluminum shop in Tripoli, Lebanon.
While most refugee programs work to send Syrians cash and food, few offer one-on-one counseling to kids like Razzak — who are traumatized by both the war in Syria and work life in Lebanon.
“We have about 500,000 to 600,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, and a fairly large number are not receiving the emotional support they should receive,” Bayram says. “Emotionally, they are left to basically live with their pain, with their traumas, with their different kind of exhausting thoughts.”
Several NGOs in Lebanon offer psychosocial support programs — mostly through group activities, like soccer and painting.
“We try to stray away from one-on-one counseling because we want to optimize the delivery of the program and reach as many refugees as possible,” Sleiman says.
Save the Children offers group activities twice a week for a group of 25 child laborers, including soccer games and art therapy. They get to leave work for one hour, forget about their stresses, makes friends, and just be themselves.
But it’s hard to convince employers to send kids to these activities. Many parents don’t see the point. And the groups can so far support dozens, not the nearly 300,000 who might actually need their services.
“When we outreach and introduce our services, parents' expectations are only financial,” says Talar Mahredji, a psychologist with Save the Children. “So they kind of say, ‘Hey, you want my child to play for two hours in your center and in return there’s no financial benefits?’”
If the focus continues to be on money — and not on a child's well-being — what will the future of this generation look like? That’s a question Ghida Ismail, who helped conduct a study on child labor at the American University of Beirut last year, often asks. She worries not only about these neglected children — but how they will, in about a decade or so, have a major effect on the world.
“If they’re not in school, they’re more vulnerable to join extremist groups and more vulnerable for child labor and begging on the streets,” Ismail says. “This is, even for the future of Syria, very bad. If things get better in Syria and Syrians can go back there, most of the new generation are not receiving education. How can they reconstruct Syria?”
Lisa Khoury is a freelance multimedia journalist in Lebanon. Previously, she worked as a producer for Spectrum News in Buffalo, and has written for ABC News, Huffington Post, and the Buffalo News; she won two national awards for her investigative stories at the University at Buffalo's student-run newspaper, the Spectrum.