In scrap metal and refineries, the terrible child labor in Syria

At 15, Mohammad Makhzoum forgot his childhood. This orphan from the war in Syria has dropped out of school and works 12 hours a day as a junkyard to feed his two younger brothers and his sister.

At six o’clock every morning he goes to work where he melts metal all day long in a large open-air cauldron. In the evening, he returns home to make sure his brothers and sister have done their homework and prepare a meal for them.

“I am their mother and father,” he told AFP, his face and body covered with soot, in a junkyard in the town of Al-Bab in northern Syria.

“I work so that they can continue their studies because they should not be deprived of school like me.”

After a decade of war in Syria, around 2.5 million children are out of school and 1.6 million are at risk of dropping out of school, according to Unicef, which marked the International Human Rights Day on November 20. ‘child.

Syrian children in front of the stove of a forge where they work in al-Bab in Syria, November 18, 2021 (AFP – Bakr ALKASEM)

Nine out of ten children live in poverty and more than 5,700, some as young as seven, have been recruited to take part in the fighting, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

In the absence of official data, it is estimated that the number of child laborers has increased steadily since the start of the war in 2011.

– “Suffer like me” –

Hands of a Syrian child working in a forge in the city of al-Bab in Syria, November 18, 2021 (AFP - Bakr ALKASEM)

Hands of a Syrian child working in a forge in the city of al-Bab in Syria, November 18, 2021 (AFP – Bakr ALKASEM)

“It is obvious that child labor has increased in Syria (…) due to Covid-19 and the worsening economic crisis,” UNICEF spokeswoman Juliette told AFP. Touma.

She points out that working children in Syria “are exposed to absolutely horrible, terrible conditions”.

Mohammad Makhzoum, from the town of Maarat al-Noomane in the jihadist and rebel-controlled Idlib province, left school at the age of nine to help his family, after his father died in a bombardment of the regime.

Two years ago, he lost his mother in the fighting.

He fled with his two brothers and his sister to Al-Bab, a town under the control of Syrian Proturc militias. The small family lives in a two-room apartment riddled with bullets, furnished with a few mattresses.

His weekly income is only the equivalent of five dollars, but he manages to provide food and buy school supplies for his brothers and sister.

“I work for them. I would like to see them become doctors or teachers, not to suffer like me.”

Mohammad Makhzoum, a 15-year-old Syrian, in a scrapyard where he works in al-Bab, Syria, on November 18, 2021 (AFP - Bakr ALKASEM)

Mohammad Makhzoum, a 15-year-old Syrian, in a scrapyard where he works in al-Bab, Syria, on November 18, 2021 (AFP – Bakr ALKASEM)

But a large number of Syrian children are unlikely to have a decent life.

Amer al-Chaybane is 12 years old. He works in a makeshift refinery in al-Bab.

Black coat and red cap protecting him from the cold, he kneels in the mud to extract pieces of coal which he piles up in a plastic bag. Bending under the weight of the bag, he carries it to go to feed an oven giving off toxic fumes.

– “Broken dreams” –

Syrian children transporting coal to a refinery in al-Bab, Syria, November 20, 2021 (AFP - Bakr ALKASEM)

Syrian children transporting coal to a refinery in al-Bab, Syria, November 20, 2021 (AFP – Bakr ALKASEM)

“I dream of holding a notebook and pencil and going to school. But I am forced to work,” says Amer, who has never learned to read and write.

Met by AFP at the refinery, he says he is the main breadwinner of the family.

“I work summer and winter in the refinery to help my parents. My chest still hurts from the smoke.”

When he finishes his job, he walks to the neighboring IDP camp where he lives with his parents and five younger siblings. His older brothers were killed in a regime bombardment near Aleppo.

Her father suffers from diabetes and blocked arteries, and the family barely makes a living on his monthly salary of five dollars.

The eldest of four, Nadim al-Nako, 12, has given up hope of returning to school, which he left two years ago to help his blacksmith father.

Nadim al-Nako, a 12-year-old Syrian, works in his blacksmith father's workshop in al-Bab in Syria on November 20, 2021 (AFP - Bakr ALKASEM)

Nadim al-Nako, a 12-year-old Syrian, works in his blacksmith father’s workshop in al-Bab in Syria on November 20, 2021 (AFP – Bakr ALKASEM)

He works with a blowtorch, the flames a few inches from his face, to mold pots and pans in their small forge at Al-Bab.

“Today, neither school nor anything else matters to me (…) The war shattered our dreams.”