By Miriam Azar
In Lebanon, child labour – work that is hazardous for children, exposing them to violence, exploitation and abuse and depriving them of an education – has become a growing challenge partly due to the impact of the Syria crisis on the economy and on families struggling to survive. Increasing numbers of children have become breadwinners for their family, working long hours with low wages, sometimes in the worst forms of child labour. While progress has been made to place Syrian refugee children into educational institutes, 70% are still out of school in Lebanon.
BEIRUT, 2nd July 2015 – Each morning, 15 year old Ahmad rides his crimson red bicycle, turning onto a small street leading to a picturesque stone house. At 8:30am, he unlocks the gate of the center with the keys entrusted to him, and enters the tranquil front yard.
Sitting in the garden, Ahmad says softly: “I was happy in Syria, I went to school. During the war we had to leave.”
Like many children of Syria, Ahmad carries the emotional distress of having lost loved ones, and having witnessed or experienced violence. When asked about his friends, his eyes swell up with tears: “I used to play with my friends…but they died.”
Ahmad fled Syria and came to Lebanon one year ago, leaving his childhood behind.
He started working, no longer attending school. First he worked at a pastry shop, but was not paid a penny over the six months. He left. Then he worked long hours in a bakery for a low salary. He was badly treated by a colleague his age, and the owner did not honour his promise to pay Ahmad the amount agreed on. Ahmad tried working in construction in another city, but it was physically too exhausting.
A recent study on street-based children in Lebanon by ILO, UNICEF, and Save the Children, found it was not uncommon for working children to be paid less than the agreed rate.
Ahmad was brought to the Lebanese NGO “Himaya”, which means protection in Arabic. He now works as a facilitator at their centre in northern Lebanon, helping organize and assist in recreational activities for younger, vulnerable children.
UNICEF supports Himaya to reach some 40,000 children and 38,000 caregivers in Lebanon. The NGO works on building resilience and tolerance, providing life skills training, and psychosocial therapy to disadvantaged children and youth.
“I feel equal around them (Himaya team)”, says Ahmad with a broad smile. “I’d like to spend more time at the center, but the team makes me leave when office hours are over.”
Poverty one of greatest barriers to ending child labour and ensuring an education
Tackling child labour is no easy task. Multiple approaches are needed to address the root causes: poverty; access to and quality of education; mobilization of public support for respecting children’s rights. In Lebanon a major challenge is also the lack of income generating activities for Syrian refugees.
“A child who is working can’t be taken and immediately transferred to school”, says Nizar Akleh, field coordinator at Himaya. “This child might have missed school for a long time, and also – this is the main reason usually – there is a need for money to continue living.”
Within the Lebanese Government’s strategy to eliminate the worst forms of child labour, UNICEF, in partnership with NGOs like Himaya, is raising awareness among communities on the importance of education and the rights of children, and providing learning opportunities for children and life-skills training for adolescents. This includes negotiating with employers, parents and others to allow children to work less, be protected from hazards, work in safe conditions, and attend an afternoon or morning learning session.
Learning skills in a safe environment
Although Ahmad needs to earn money, he now enjoys his work. He is learning skills that will help him get employed in the future, is part of a team, and knows he will be paid each month while his colleagues help him learn how to use money wisely.
In the future, Ahmad wants to become a mechanical electrician. “Nizar is searching for another job for me in a car mechanics shop – in two days I am going to meet the owner”, Ahmad says with enthusiasm.
Bicycle as a token of friendship
Ahmad tells us he got his bicycle from his colleague Nizar: “He told me he has a bicycle at home; he fixed it and gave it to me.”
“We spend time together joking”, Ahmad said about Nizar. “He’s like a brother to me.”
As they sit together drinking matte tea in the garden, both Ahmad and Nizar have a similar air of sincerity and responsibility, with a discreet but friendly approach. When both of them speak about work, their hand gestures become animated, indicating their dedication.
One of us
“When we first met Ahmad, he didn’t look us in the eyes, he looked down,” said Nizar. “After one week he started talking with us. Today it feels like he’s one of us.”
Ahmad interacts naturally with children. Out in a settlement area for Syrian refugees where Himaya organizes awareness sessions for women and adolescent girls, Ahmad plays with the younger children surrounding him.
“In my opinion Ahmad will have a bright future,” says Nizar. “I can see Ahmad having his own workshop in the future and I can see him as a successful communicator.”
Ahmad’s patience, courage, determination, and maturity is summed up when asked who he aspires to:
“No-one, I like myself. I like to be myself”, Ahmad says assertively.