At Washokani refugee camp, located northwest of Syria’s northeastern Al-Hasakah city, Syrian children are working to pieces on eight-hour shifts at grocery stores to help their families survive harsh living conditions brought about by displacement and war.
Scrawny girls and boys as young as 15 and 12 are having to do labor-intensive tasks beyond what their bodies are capable of, like lifting and moving around large packages of produce. At the end of the day, they return bone-tired to their parents’ tents. Hazem, age 12, must wake up as early as 7:00 in the morning to rush to his job selling tobacco to those passing by the road connecting al-Tawinah town to the heart of the city.
He stands on his feet for eight hours straight to sell packs of cigarettes. He looks to help feed his family after being deprived of his right to education by the tolls that come with being a refugee.
Child labor is rife at Washokani. Minors can be seen cleaning, helping customers, waitressing and working in food stores, not to mention many of them who roam the streets as vendors for all sorts of products. Some also collect plastic and paper from trash cans to sell to recycling dealers.
Jilan, a 15-year-old girl, works hard at a grocery store moving around heavy tanks of oil, ghee, and water. She makes sure to stay active at her job out of fear of getting fired.
“The shop owner gives me a daily wage of 2,000 liras and sometimes they bump it up to 3,500 liras (around $1),” she told Asharq Al-Awsat, adding that she uses the money to help her widowed mother and siblings.
She timidly tried to hold back her smile as she expressed how lucky she was to find a job.
“Many of our neighbors’ kids are looking for a job and can’t find any,” she said, noting that she quit school three years ago to help her mother secure living expenses.
Jilan’s mother, Rima, confirmed that she is raising all seven of her children in a 25 square meter tent that she divided into a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom. The 40-year-old widow had lost her house and possessions after fleeing her hometown, Ras al-Ayn, along with her children.
“Food aid baskets aren’t enough for us,” Rima told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“After my husband died of a terminal illness, I became a widow raising seven people, but we are missing a lot. I searched for a job to no avail. Jilan’s salary helps us meet some needs,” she added.
Other children who work in pulling carts to sell vegetables and fruits or selling cigarettes like Hazem do face work stress and exploitation by employers hiring minors because of how little they can get away with paying them.
“I am afraid of the police patrols because my street stand is in violation of the law,” Hazem told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“When they come, I quickly disappear from the intensity of fear, and there is no second option because my mother is sick and my father is getting old and unable to find a source of livelihood.”
According to UNICEF, the number of displaced children across Syria after 11 years of fighting stands at about 2,600,000.
Since 2014, the United Nations has verified that more than 4,500 children have been killed, more than 3,000 children have been injured, and more than 3,800 children have been recruited to battlefronts. The numbers may be higher because it is difficult to verify them from independent sources.