When I first met 12-year-old Mohammad, he was sitting in a Mercy Corps community center in Barja, Lebanon, shyly studying his hands.
Before the Syrian war started, Mohammad had a nice home in Aleppo and lived a regular life with his family. But war forced his family from their home and sent them on the run. Still a child, Mohammad became a refugee and had to drop out of school.
His family fled to another city in Syria, where they lived under ISIS rule for a year. But the trauma of war began to take its toll. Mohammad’s brother, Ismael, was unable to speak after the extreme stress of the experience and the violent events he witnessed.
Soon, the family had no choice: they knew they had to leave Syria for good.
In Lebanon the family found safety, and a one-room place to live in Barja, a suburb of Beirut. But they couldn’t meet even their most basic needs. Mohammad’s father, Akil, had worked as a shoemaker in Syria, but he was injured and couldn’t work in Lebanon. The family had no way to prepare for the future and was even forced to borrow water from their neighbors.
With time and options running out, they only had one choice: Mohammad, not even a teenager, had to go to work.
A childhood of labor
Today, Mohammad works at a construction site. His 14-year-old sister, Diana, works as a seamstress. It’s a common tale for refugees: living far from home and with work hard to find, adolescents are often the sole breadwinners for their families, working hard-labor jobs with few rights or protections.
While the number of children participating in child labor around the world has declined from 246 million to 168 million since 2000, it is still a major problem for Syrian refugees. In Jordan, the number of child laborers doubled between 2007 and 2016. In a 2015 study in Lebanon, more than 73 percent of children living and working on the streets had come from Syria.
War has robbed Mohammad of his adolescence. In the mornings he mixes cement and sand at the construction site. When the workday is done and he finally gets to go to school, he studies his favorite subjects — math, French and painting — with chemical burns on his hands.
A year and a half ago, volunteers from the local Social Cultural Club went door to door in the community and invited people to come to activities at a nearby community center. Mercy Corps works with local partners like the club, which is supervised by the Ministry of Social Affairs, to protect children from violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect. Providing this community support is one of many efforts we make to help Syrian refugees who have lost everything.
Dressed in denim from head to toe, with bright blue glasses and slicked back hair, Mohammad participates in art therapy programs with other kids at the center. Together they discuss the challenges they face as refugees, including exploitative labor and domestic violence, and different ways they can protect themselves.
“At the center I learned to think about my future,” Mohammad says. “I learned not to go with a stranger, no matter what he is offering. I learned how to protect myself at the workplace and not to carry heavy materials or come into contact with chemicals and heat that could hurt me. If the job site manager tries to hit me, I say, ‘No. I will report you.’”
Mohammad shows us a whiteboard drawing he recently completed. In the center of the drawing is a three-story school. Mohammad says that on the left side kids are happy because they are learning and playing. On the other side kids are sad because they are working without access to school or play.
“It reflects my life now. I live on both sides,” he says.
A powerful source of hope
Mohammed stands with the art he’s created at the community center.
Youth like Mohammad face a critical moment. The stress of a life in crisis has put them at risk of making harmful and dangerous choices. Yet Mercy Corps works with these youth because we know they still represent an amazing source of potential and a powerful source of hope.
Through our child protection program, more than 21,300 girls and boys like Mohammad have found safe spaces and activities that help them cope with their experiences.
“I am happy to come here,” Mohammad says. “I play and learn and no one hits us.”
The centers have also provided training for more than 17,000 caregivers like Mohammad’s mother, Raghdaa. Raghdaa misses the normal life of raising her kids in Syria, the daily routine of waking them up and getting them ready for school in the morning.
That life is over for now. Thanks to Mercy Corps, she has learned how to comfort her kids while they wait to see if it will return.
“Before joining [the center] I was nervous,” Raghdaa says. “At the center they taught me how to control my stress, how to communicate with [the children] and how to protect them.”
Mohammad wants to be a lawyer when he grows up, and his sister, Diana, wants to return to school and become an eye doctor. After the severe trauma of his childhood, Ismael has made progress at the center, and is now talking and playing with other children.
Raghdaa still worries for her children. They will face challenges, she knows, after a childhood spent as refugees. Yet she is heartened to see them regain their dreams for a better life.
“I wish them the best for the future, that they can continue their studies,” she says. “I am afraid to die before ensuring they have a good future, that they can make their dreams come true.”
For Mohammad, that future still lies ahead. For now, he finds joy in being able to continue living his daily life with the people he loves most.
“I am so happy I can help my family,” he says.
Your support will allow us do even more with young people and others around the world. Here’s how you can make a difference:
- Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more food, water, shelter and support to refugees and families in crisis around the world.
- Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page and spread the word about the millions who need us.
- Start a campaign. You can turn knowledge into action by setting up a personal fundraising page and asking your friends and family to contribute to our efforts to help refugees.
- Sign a petition. Tell Congress that we must continue to support refugees. Add your name to the list to stand in support with refugees.