The stolen childhoods of refugee youth

Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, August 31, 2016

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  • Five years ago, Bassam was a normal teenager in Syria. But war has left him as the primary earner for his family and forced him into a life of constant labor. All photos: Peter Biro for Mercy Corps.

In a small textile factory in northern Jordan, surrounded by spools of brightly colored thread, 18-year-old Bassam measures out his life in 12-hour shifts.

Bassam was a normal teenager five years ago, who loved school and hanging out with his friends. He dreamed of graduating, going to college and becoming an electrical engineer. But like millions of other young Syrians, war put an end to his education and sent his family on the run.

Now he’s a refugee, trading the last years of his adolescence for life at work in a factory.

Instead of sitting in a classroom, Bassam works as many as 12 hours a day, every day, running heavy machinery and cutting fabric for women’s robes. With four sisters, three brothers and a widowed mother, he doesn’t have a choice: he has to be the one to earn for his family.

“I remember when I used to wake up and go to school or go out with my friends,” he says. “But now, it’s a different life. Now I feel sad, because my life has changed.”

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According to the United Nations, children make up more than 40 percent of the world’s refugees, the largest number in recorded history. In Syria, where more than 11 million people have fled the war, about one in four refugee children is growing up without a father. That often means a child must take on the task of supporting the family.

The challenges of displacement are made even harder on refugee youth by this pressure to earn for their families. Now tasked with an incredible responsibility, they often must drop out of school and pick up manual labor jobs, or work under-the-table without protection or documentation — just to scrape by.

For these young men and women, war didn’t just take their homes and end their educations. It stole what was left of their childhoods.

The pressure to provide


As the main earner in his family of nine, 18-year-old Bassam gave up a life of education for the 80-hour work week of a factory.

Because it’s difficult — or, in some cases, illegal — for many refugees to find legitimate employment, they often must take demanding jobs with grueling hours. They have to find employers who will accept them without documentation. In return, refugees must trust that their employers will keep to their agreements and work without rights or protection.

Bassam took a job in the textile factory near his home, but because his employers know he needs the money, he works extra hours every day. He works as many as 80 hours a week.

When he’s not working at the factory, Bassam helps his younger brothers work as olive pickers. Half the money he earns goes to his mother, and half he saves for the day he can resume his education.

“When I wake up, I remember my school, my studies, and my friends in Syria,” he says. “The fact that I am living with my family is motivating. Other people have lost their families or parents, but I, thank God, am still living with my family.”

A lack of real opportunity


Mahmoud made it through the seventh grade in Syria. Now he works as a day laborer to support his family in Jordan. He hasn’t been to school in three years.

Roughly half of refugee children and one-quarter of refugee adolescents cannot attend school in their new countries. In Lebanon, 17-year-old Mahmoud supports his family of five working as a day laborer, offloading goods from trucks and carrying them to a warehouse for about $12 a container.

“Before the war, we had bicycles and friends,” he says. “We’d go to school, then go home and play, ride our bicycles, spend time outside. But when the crisis started we had a lot of shelling, snipers and armed men in the neighborhood so we stopped going outside and we stopped going to school.”

With his father unable to find work since leaving Syria, Mahmoud knows it’s up to him to make enough money for his family to survive. A good student who loved computer studies and science, he excelled through the seventh grade in Syria, but he hasn’t been back inside a school since he fled three years ago.

Like every other teenage boy he knows, he needs the hours for work.

“A lot of young children are going to school,” he says, “but I’ve never heard about someone my age going.”

A life of isolation


With no chance to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher, 17-year-old Maya got married in Jordan. “There’s nothing else to do,” she says.

Life as a refugee isn’t just exhausting; it can also be dangerously isolating. Both Bassam and Mahmoud have experienced bullying as Syrian men living in a new country. Bassam was threatened by a group of boys while waiting for his sisters outside their school; Mahmoud was robbed at gunpoint for being Syrian while leaving work late one night at a butcher shop.

That isolation can be deeply felt by refugee girls. About half the world’s refugees are women and girls, a group that finds fewer opportunities to move forward as they adapt to life in their new countries.

At home in Damascus, 17-year-old Maya loved working with children and dreamed of a career as a teacher. But when war broke out, she dropped out of school and carried her little sister in her arms across the border to Jordan. She found safety there, but she also found a new danger: depression.

Seeing no other direction for her life, she got married at 16.

“When we first got here I was always at home and there was nothing to do,” she says. “I was very bored, so when he proposed, he’s a nice guy and I liked him, so I thought, OK, I’ll just get married because there’s nothing else to do.”

Maya never expected to get married so young. She had dreams back in Syria, dreams she still holds today — of resuming her education, starting a career and helping her country rebuild. But she knows they’re not realistic. School is too expensive, and her husband and family want her to stay home.

All that’s left is to wait for war to be over, and to imagine how life would be different if it had never driven her away.

“I wouldn’t have gotten married,” she says. “I would’ve finished my school and education and then thought about marriage. I would have studied education because I really love children and wanted to be a teacher.”

A chance for community


Adventure therapy at a Mercy Corps youth center has helped Bassam focus on his future. “When I come to the center forget everything bad,” he says.

To help young refugees regain pieces of the childhoods they’ve lost, Mercy Corps works with local communities to set up youth centers where kids don’t have to think about the looming responsibilities of adulthood.

There, they can interact with kids their age, learn important life skills, play sports and spend time outdoors.

Maya’s uncle knew she was spending all day out of school and unmotivated, so he suggested she spend her time instead at the youth center near their home. Soon, she was learning new skills and making new Jordanian friends whom she talks to constantly on WhatsApp. Her father now works there as a security guard.

“It was really nice,” she says. “I learned many new things. I met new people and I made new friends.”

The local youth center has also restored a sense of purpose for Mahmoud, who goes there to take computer and phone maintenance classes. He loves his mentors and the Syrian-Palestinian friends he’s made, though he’s worried he might soon have to quit going because of work.

“I hope that I will be in Canada within 10 years from now,” Mahmoud says. “I’d like to settle there. I’d like to stay there if I managed to get married and start a family and a business.”

Rather than simply dream about what he’s lost, time spent at the youth center has helped Bassam learn to focus on how to make the most of his life now. The coaches at the center have taught him relaxation techniques and how to think about the future.

He even went on a hiking trip with other kids from the center, where he made new Jordanian friends.

“When I come to the center I forget everything bad and enjoy everything that I have now,” he says. “I made new friends and went out to do activities and have fun.”

He still thinks about life back in Syria, about his mother’s garden behind their house, and the smell of olive trees in bloom. He would be finished with his first year of university by now.

It’s a dream on hold for now, but thanks to his newfound focus on the future, not one that’s gone forever.

“In 10 years, God willing, I’ll resume my studies after I finish my work,” he says. “I’ll be a great electronics engineer leading a unique life, and I’ll fulfill all my dreams.”