Fleeing Syria, these child refugees become child labourers

In Turkey, thousands of refugee children are toiling in low-paying jobs to help their families survive.

By Rania Abouzeid
photographs by Emin Özmen
Published 21 Jun 2019, 12:18 BST
Years of long stints behind the sewing machine have left Xunava with medical problems, including swelling ...

Years of long stints behind the sewing machine have left Xunava with medical problems, including swelling behind her knees and varicose veins that require surgery. She says she can't afford to take time off and seek treatment. "if I don't work, who will earn in my place?"

Xunava is a 16-year-old Syrian refugee who dreams of going to school. The last time she was in a classroom, in 2013, in her native Aleppo, she was in fourth grade. Back then, before her family escaped to Turkey, Xunava dreamed of becoming a doctor.

Today, she’s a child labourer in the coastal city of Mersin, the breadwinner in a family of six, toiling in a sewing factory six days a week. It’s not a life she or her parents ever wanted for her, but wants are luxuries when basic needs are urgent.

In another part of Turkey, in the southeastern city of Gaziantep, 11-year-old Mahmoud doesn’t have a dream. (For security, only first names are used in this story.) He can’t articulate a single hope beyond returning home to Aleppo. His older brother, 15-year-old Ahmad, says his ambition is to own a car just to drive back to a Syria they fled from in 2014 because of war. Until recently, both boys worked in a mechanic’s garage. Now Mahmoud is back in school, and Ahmad works at a sanitation company.

Child labour is outlawed in Turkey, and although the Turkish government and the International Labour Organization declared 2018 “the year to combat child labour,” the scale of the problem is unknown. There are no statistics for the number of Syrian youngsters employed in industries such as agriculture, automobile mechanics, and manufacturing, and the most recent government figures for Turkish children date back to 2012. (At the time, 893,000 Turkish children between the ages of six and 17 were working.)

More than eight years of war have displaced—internally or beyond Syria’s borders—at least half the country’s 21 million people. Turkey alone has absorbed 3.6 million of the more than 5.6 million Syrians who have fled their homeland. Turkey, with a population of more than 80 million, now hosts the largest refugee population in the world. More than 70 percent of the Syrians in Turkey live below the poverty line, not confined to the 13 camps that house 137,000 of their compatriots. Close to half of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are children, yet only 590,000 attend school.

By the time Xunava first sat behind a sewing machine, three years ago as a 13-year-old, she already had survived warplanes, helicopter gunships, barrel bombs, and armed men roaming her Aleppine neighborhood. She remembers the day five rockets slammed into the bakery where her father, Khalil, worked. Shrapnel peppered his head, slicing his left wrist and blinding his left eye. It was October 22, 2012. Xunava, her mother Jihane, younger sister Lava, brother Ahmed, and baby sister Rojbeen learned of the strike from neighbors who saw the news on television. Twenty-three people died in the bakery that day.

Xunava’s family stayed in Aleppo during the many turns in the Syrian conflict, from the peaceful protests against President Bashar al Assad back in 2011, to the armed rebellion, to the emergence of extremist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Those groups fought alongside anti-Assad rebels sometimes, fought against them other times, and also fought each other. The wars within the war deepened the danger of Syria’s murky, messy battlefield.

Xunava’s family persevered in their home, until one morning in February 2014 when it became too much and got too close. Overhead, Assad’s helicopter gunships rained down barrel bombs that exploded all around them. The family rushed out, taking nothing with them, thinking their flight would be temporary. Now, years later, Rojbeen still asks after her colourful toy blocks, and Ahmed longs for his bike.

The family initially sought refuge with a relative in the Aleppine countryside, but ISIS fighters controlled the village. “We were more afraid there,” Xunava says. The extremist group tolerated no dissent to its rule and punished violators of its strict interpretation of Islamic law with detention, public floggings, and beheadings.

Mahmoud looks years younger than his age. His mother believes his growth was stunted by years of work in the garage. "My heart burned when I sent my children to work," she says. "I feel like I failed them."

With her father partially blind and unable to walk more than a few steps because of a worsening back problem and her mother restricted by the extremists’ suffocating rules for women, it was Xunava who often ventured out to buy bread. One day, she says she saw decapitated heads in the market. “Men's heads,” she says, “displayed near the mosque, and there was a man's head on the ground. They'd cut their heads off. I saw that.” She was 10 at the time.

That was enough for Xunava’s parents. The family left their relative’s house for a tent in a camp for the internally displaced. Then in October 2014, hoping for a better life, they all sneaked across the Turkish border, aided by a smuggler.

“We walked for about an hour in the dark and cold,” Xunava recalls. “I was very scared—scared that we’d be caught by the Turkish soldiers and returned to Syria. I didn't want to go back to Syria and die.”

They spent their first night in Turkey on the floor of the bus station in Gaziantep, about 60 miles north of Aleppo. A Turkish stranger bought them sandwiches.

“We didn’t know where to go or what to do,” Khalil says, but he knew that they didn’t want to live in a refugee camp. “In Syria, we lived in tents. We saw what that life is,” he says, “and I didn't want to see another camp.”

On the advice of a Syrian friend in Mersin, the family took up there. Jihane found work in a sewing factory, but her monthly wage of 350 Turkish lira (then about $150) barely covered their rent. Picking citrus and harvesting other seasonal produce from dawn till dusk paid better—about $17 a day—but the work was grueling. Jihane soon moved from the groves into a job at a citrus packing plant, often finishing the day’s work well after her children were asleep. “Years passed like that,” she says.

Malik, 13, has worked these fields in the Turkish coastal city of Mersin since he fled Syria five years ago. His days are long, up to 12 hours of gruelling labour for £5.
Ahmed (at left), 17, and his brother Emin, 22, pick olives in Hatay, Turkey, for £5 a day. After leaving Syria in 2012, their family of 10 spent two years in a government-run Turkish refugee camp. "To live in the camp was hard," Ahmed says, "so we decided to leave. I have to work to support my family."

Although tuition is free, Xunava and her siblings didn’t attend their local school—they didn’t speak Turkish. And they couldn’t afford one of the private Arabic-language schools for Syrians.

In 2015, Xunava’s parents applied through the United Nations for third-country resettlement, not specifying a destination. Their application landed in the pile of paperwork from people seeking refuge in the United States. After several rounds of interviews, the most recent on September 2, 2016, they were told that their application was conditionally approved, pending further security checks.

But then, soon after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, his administration introduced Executive Order 13769, which, among other things, indefinitely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees into the country.

“We heard about his Muslim ban, and everything froze for us,” Jihane says. In 2017, the U.S. accepted 3,024 Syrian refugees; in 2018, just 41.

Adult concerns on a child's shoulders: Khalil, 16, waits and hopes for work as a day labourer in Hatay. He has been coming to this spot, along with other young would-be refugee workers, every morning since he was 11. "We rarely get a job," he says. "We mostly wait for nothing."

While the family’s application was being evaluated in 2016, and with Jihane exhausted and unable to work every day, Xunava was sent to a sewing factory. Not knowing how to sew, she was put to work handing cut pieces to the machine operators and removing stitched items from their work space. She toiled from eight in the morning until well after others left at 6:30 in the evening, staying behind to clean the workshop. At about £65 a month, hers was the lowest-paid job on the floor.

Wanting more, the teenager learned to sew, sneaking in lessons from a friend during their hour-long lunch break and two 15-minute breaks. Xunava then was allowed to operate a sewing machine, doubling her monthly wage.

She picked up Turkish from her new Turkish friends, seamstresses who were later replaced by cheaper Syrian teenage labor. Xunava’s little sister Lava joined her for a few months in 2018, carrying fabric to and from the machine operators. But she soon quit, afraid of the needles and because she had back pain and couldn’t tolerate the noise. Meanwhile, Xunava taught herself how to use other machines, increasing her monthly wage to its current £135. She says she intends to master all half a dozen or so sewing appliances in the factory to push her earnings to their plateau—£220 a month.

All this has come at a cost to Xunava’s health. Her bandaged right wrist throbs. Her back aches. She’s lost count of how many times she’s pricked her fingers with needles. The swelling behind her knees and the varicose veins from long stints in her chair often leave her legs, she says, “feeling locked, frozen; I can’t move them, sometimes for a long time.” She needs an operation but is afraid it might leave her unable to walk, like her father.

"Fourteen-year-old twins Sidra (at left) and Shahed remember the barrel bombs in Aleppo that forced them from their home in 2013. "We were happy to leave the bombs and the warplanes," Sidra says. The sisters enrolled in Arabic-language schools in Gaziantep and are now in Turkish schools. "From the moment we were displaced, I was determined that my children would not stop school, says their father, Mahmoud.

She doesn’t have health insurance from her job. (“No, nothing like that, not for us Syrians,” Jihane says.) Although Turkey offers free health care in public hospitals, Xunava worries that attending to her physical needs would mean lost time at work. “I will have to recover at home for a period. I won't be able to work,” she says. “If I don't work, who will earn in my place?”

For Mahmoud and Ahmad, Syria was bad but Turkey was worse. Mahmoud, who looks much younger than his 11 years, remembers Syria in snippets: the day a missile landed near his school; the pigeons and potted plants his family kept on their flat roof; huddling around a stove in a mud-caked tent that flooded in a heavy rainstorm; the family being smuggled into Turkey in 2014.

Soon after they settled in Gaziantep, their father abandoned them to return to Syria, because, his wife says, “He couldn't stand the situation here.” They haven’t heard from him since. Mahmoud thinks he’s dead. Mahmoud’s mother, Em Ahmad, who did not want to be fully identified by her family name for their security, supported her four children (the youngest was just two at the time) by doing whatever jobs she could: picking produce in the fields, washing dishes, cleaning factories. She taught herself Turkish well enough to serve customers in a furniture store a short walk from their two-room apartment.

The long hours and low wages were demoralising but not the worst exploitation she experienced. More hurtful, and terrifying, was the sexual harassment and innuendo, from employers and customers alike. Em Ahmad, 40, bristles at the memory of telephone numbers slipped into her palm along with comments such as, “Fifty lira should be enough.” She quit several jobs because of this.

“I was devastated to be spoken to like that. I’m considered cheap because I’m poor,” she says. “They didn't look at me and say, ‘This Syrian woman is working because she is proud and will not beg.’ This happened many, many, many times. So many times. Just because I'm Syrian, and I'm not the only one it happens to. There is a lot of pain. We have many wounds, not all of them visible.”

Her wage was barely enough for a family of five, so Ahmad and Mahmoud were sent to work, while their two sisters stayed at home. “My heart burned when I sent my children to work,” Em Ahmad says. “I feel like I failed them. Mahmoud was seven or eight.”

The brothers worked in a garage from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m., six days a week. “I’d sweep the floor, make tea, hand the workers their tools, and put the tools away,” Mahmoud says. He says his Turkish boss kept the tips that were meant to augment his daily wage of about £7. One day, Ahmad stepped on a nail that lodged in his left foot. Instead of treating the child, their Turkish supervisor fired Ahmad and dumped him in front of the family’s home. Ahmad soon found his current job with a sanitation company, laying water pipes in new buildings.

Syrian refugee children pose in their classroom. The school, run by Maya, a Turkish NGO, is in a remote area near seasonal agricultural workers' camps in Mersin. The school relies on donations to feed, clothe, and educate its 35 refugee students. "We teach them Turkish and to sing and express themselves in Arabic," says Maya's Bediz Yilmaz. "We wanted to take them out of the fields and make them live their childhood."

Meanwhile, Mahmoud quit that job and took up in his uncle Hisham’s mechanics workshop. The boy’s asthma worsened in the dust and dirt of the work space. In 2018, his uncle, also a Syrian refugee, offered to pay Em Ahmad’s rent and utility bills, making it possible for the boys and their two sisters to attend school for the first time in years. Ahmad, however, preferred to continue working, to provide another wage to supplement his mother’s. Mahmoud went to school but still helps his uncle on Saturdays for pocket money.

Their mother worries about the psychological toll on her sons. She says they both developed a speech impediment after leaving Syria and still have frequent nightmares. “They have adult concerns, not childhood dreams,” she says. “My children don't have dreams; they are broken inside. May God not forgive all those who drove us from our homes and did this to us. They destroyed a generation.”

Some hope of financial help for displaced Syrians came in November 2016 when the Turkish government—in collaboration with the European Union, the Turkish Red Crescent, and the World Food Programme—established the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) program. Under it, Syrian refugees receive monthly payments of about $20 per person.

The money is allocated through a debit instrument known as the Kizilay card. In May 2017, that was supplemented with a program called the Conditional Cash Transfer for Education, spearheaded by UNICEF and the Turkish government. It offers vulnerable refugee families a financial incentive to get—and keep—their children in classrooms.

Ahmed, 15, from Idlib, Syria, works well into the night to produce artisinal olive oil in Hatay. Child labour is outlawed in Turkey, but there are no statistics for the number of Syrian youngsters employed in industries such as agriculture, automobile mechanics, and manufacturing.

For children who have missed years of education, it rewards regular attendance in Turkish schools or in accelerated learning programs in youth and public education centres with bimonthly cash payments of between £5 and £9, depending on the child’s age and gender. To encourage their attendance, girls are paid more than boys. As a result, refugee enrollment numbers in Turkish schools have increased steadily.

Thanks to the ESSN program, Mahmoud’s family receives an additional £79 a month, and he is back at school. Xunava’s family pockets an extra £130 a month from both programs, although she continues to work. The extra money helps but isn’t nearly enough to keep them going.

“She should be in school with her siblings,” Jihane says of her eldest daughter. With most Syrian refugee families, Jihane says, “if the father isn't working, there are sons who will work—but we must rely on Xunava.”

Sometimes, Xunava says, she reflects on how war and displacement have stolen her childhood. “I see the Turks, how they’re comfortable and happy in their own country, and I wish the same for me and my family, for all Syrians.” She hopes now for two things: an end to the Syrian conflict and to return to school.

After Xunava gets home in the evening, she often reads Lava’s schoolbooks. “At the very least, if I can’t benefit from learning, I am very happy that [my siblings] will,” she says. “When we were in Syria, I hated school. My mother remembers how hard it was to get me out of bed in the morning. Now I regret that. I would love to go back to school. I really want to, but our circumstances don't permit that.”

Rania Abouzeid is a Beirut-based journalist and author of No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria. A former New America fellow and incoming Harvard Nieman fellow, she has covered the Middle East and South Asia for more than 15 years. Follow her on Twitter @raniaab

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