On the scrap heap: Syria’s ‘horrific’ child labor

Syrian youths work at a scrapyard in the Turkish-controlled northern city of Al-Bab, on November 18, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
AL-BAB, Syria — Syria’s decade-long conflict forced 15-year-old Mohammad Makhzoum out of the classroom and into a scrapyard, where the orphan works 12 hours a day to support his younger siblings.اضافة اعلان

Mohammad, who has been working since he was nine, leaves home everyday at dawn for a basic foundry where he helps melt metal amid thick and toxic black fumes.

He said he wanted to make sure his sister and two brothers avoid a fate that has beset so many of Syria’s children.

“I am their mother and father,” he said, his face covered in soot, speaking from the run-down scrapyard in the northern city of Al-Bab.
“I work so that they can continue their studies, because ... they shouldn’t be denied an education like I was.”

An estimated 2.5 million children in Syria are out of school, with another 1.6 million at risk of dropping out, according to the UN’s children agency UNICEF.
It estimates that nine in ten children in Syria live in poverty and more than 5,700 children — some as young as seven — have been recruited to fight.

Worsening situation

There is no official data in Syria on child labor rates. But they are believed to have steadily increased throughout the course of the conflict, with the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis fuelling further spikes over the past year.

“It is evident that child labor has increased in Syria ... because of COVID-19 and the worsening economic crisis,” UNICEF spokesperson Juliette Touma said.

“Children in Syria, when they are involved in labor, are exposed to conditions that are absolutely horrific,” she said.

Mohammad, who originally hails from the town of Maarat Al-Numan in Idlib district, dropped out of school at the age of nine to support his family after his father was killed by artillery shells fired by government forces.
Two years ago, his mother was killed during a battle between rebels and regime forces in the same area.

He fled with his siblings to Al-Bab, where they live in a small bullet-riddled flat, furnished with nothing but thin foam mattresses.

His weekly income of five dollars barely covers their food needs, but Mohammad still manages to source enough for his siblings’ school supplies.
“I work for their sake. ... I like to see them comfortable,” he said. “I want to see them become doctors or teachers, without having to suffer like I had to.”
But few of Syria’s children currently stand a chance of getting a decent life.

‘War destroyed our dreams’

At a makeshift oil refinery in Al-Bab, 12-year-old Amer Al-Shayban knelt in the freezing mud as he packed handfuls of charcoal in a plastic bag.
Then he dragged the heavy bag — nearly half his size — to feed a furnace that emits toxic fumes.

“I am forced to work; ... it’s not in my hands,” Amer said, explaining that he is the main breadwinner for his family. 

“I work summers and winters in the refinery to support my parents. ... My chest hurts regularly because of the smoke and fumes.”
When Amer finishes his shift, he washes off soot from his hands and walks to a nearby displacement camp, where he lives with his parents and five younger siblings.

His father suffers from diabetes and clogged arteries, leaving the family mostly reliant on Amer’s monthly income of five dollars. 

“I dream of carrying a pen and a notebook and going to school,” he said. “That is better than the furnaces, the diesel and this smell.”
Nadim Al-Nako, aged 12, has given up hope of ever returning to school, after he dropped out two years ago.

Nadim works with a blowtorch most of the day — without any safety googles — in his father’s workshop to make pots and pans.

His salary goes entirely to household expenses, he said.
“War destroyed our dreams,” he said. “I don’t care anymore about school or anything of the like, the only thing I care about is this profession.”

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