BEIRUT: On a sweltering summer day, Walid and Ahmad sit on Hamra street with their blackened shoe shining rags between their legs.
With wide eyes, the boys wait for customers and hope the patrons will treat them decently. “Sometimes, when you clean their shoes, they hit you,” Ahmad said. “Or they curse you,” chimed Walid as Ahmad recited a litany of vulgarities. Neither Walid nor Ahmad is in school. According to a new report published this week by UNICEF and Save the Children NGO, Walid and Ahmad’s situation is tragically common. As the Syrian civil war drags on, more and more refugee children in Lebanon and across the region are being pushed into the workforce, often toiling under mentally and physically taxing conditions.
From field laborers to rose and candy hawkers, Syrian children now make up a ubiquitous aspect of the Lebanese labor market. According to the report, refugees as young as 6 have been put to work, and almost a third of Syrian refugee children in the labor force are under 14.
Some child laborers in the Bekaa Valley make just $4 per day. Moreover, 35 percent of the children working in the same area cannot read or write, the report also states.
In Beirut, too, the issue is stark: Mohammad Alloush, a 14-year-old refugee in Hamra, earns about $8.50 per day working at a mankoushe shop to help make ends meet for his widowed mother and 10 siblings. While school is not an option for him here in Lebanon, he recalled fondly his Arabic classes in Syria. “It would be better if I could go back to school.” All of his brothers work, he said.
The issue is no longer limited to strictly humanitarian concerns, said Ian Rodgers, the director of Save the Children in Lebanon. “Not only do we have children begging on the street [but they] are taking up jobs actively in the labor market,” Rodgers told The Daily Star. “We have a situation in Lebanon that needs to be addressed. ... There’s only so much financial burden that the Lebanese government can take on.”
Moreover, Syrian child labor is a lasting problem that threatens to affect the future of Syria, Rodgers explained. Any peace and reconciliation effort is much more likely to endure if the population is educated. Sadly, child labor often precludes education.
Rodgers urged the international community to contribute more to help Syrian youths, saying that “an investment today is going to pay out a lot better than perpetuated, continuous conflict.”
But the risk to individual children is just as distressing. Child beggars with soiled clothes have become an ever-present sight in Hamra and Gemmayzeh. Some are involved in organized begging operations that exploit vulnerable children. According to the report, 43 percent of Syrian children workers in Lebanon are beggars. Most make between $9 and $11 per day.
But Walid and Ahmad say that on bad days they make less than $7. Sometimes, they say, the police come and take their money because their work is technically illegal. “We can’t say anything, because it’s not our country,” Ahmad said.
Worse, the report states that some Syrian girls are being forced into prostitution. “Instances of the commercial sexual exploitation of children have been reported, including in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley where gangs are said to be Syrian girls and women,” the report says.
Many child laborers are subject to both physical and verbal mistreatment, a fact confirmed by Mohammad, a 17 year old who has worked in a Hamra hotel since he arrived in Lebanon. Some clients, he says, “tell me that I’m not supposed to be here. ... I pretend like I don’t hear it.”
The situation shows few signs of improving, Rodgers said. “The problem isn’t going to go away unless there is an increased level of funding” from the international community. But many countries are facing “donor fatigue,” he said, and are focused more on combatting terrorism than aiding its victims.
In the meantime, children are forced to fend for themselves or, at best, one another. Walid and Ahmad say they share the slings and arrows of insults and long work hours. “We started this together and we’ll end this together,” Walid said, flashing a grin.