"It's really bad being here," laments Ibrahim, a 13-year-old shopkeeper. "My family's at the bottom and the hardest part is that we're in so much debt."
Having escaped to Jordan from Syria with his family, Ibrahim's been working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, in a downtown shop since he was 10 years old. With lifeless eyes and a sullen face, the Aleppo native explains that his father is sick and his sister needs open heart surgery. Although he's from a family of nine, he's the only one with a job, making the equivalent of around $70 a month when the average monthly salary is almost four times that.
Ibrahim's family pays 280 Jordanian Dinars (JD) — around $395 — a month in rent for their Amman flat, a price that has seen them spiral into debt. Suffering from asthma and exhausted from long hours in the store, he's trying to find cheaper accommodation. In the meantime, however, the weight of the world rests on his young shoulders.
Ibrahim's decision to forego education and enter the labor force is not unique among refugees, with up to 100,000 Syrian children living in the Jordanian capital Amman not going to school.
Unlike the refugee camps where most things are free, Syrians residing in urban centers have to pay for food, shelter, and basic necessities. Currently, Syrians in Jordan are not allowed to work unless they have a permit costing 800JD ($1,100) per year — 16 times the average monthly salary among refugees — forcing children like Ibrahim to work illegally.
The prevalence of child labor is also exacerbated by the fact employers are more inclined to give jobs to minors, owing to the lower wages they command and the fact authorities are more likely to turn a blind eye.
In 2015, the Jordanian government initiated a crackdown on underage employment, closing 353 companies and fining business owners up to 500JD ($705) for employing children below the legal working age of 16. But the issue remains pervasive.
'We're losing generations of Syrians and the world will not understand or feel it until it's too late'
Currently an estimated 46 percent of Syrian boys and 14 percent of Syrian girls under the age of 16 are putting in more than 44 hours a week for below average pay. With over 600,000 Syrian refuges in Jordan — 85 percent of which live in cities, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) — and many adults prevented from working by injury suffered during war in their homeland or the threat of being caught, families are sending children as young as five into the workplace.
"We're losing generations of Syrians and the world will not understand or feel it until it's too late," said UNHCR Senior Field Coordinator Hovig Etyemezian, who manages the Zaatari refugee camp, which lies 43 miles northeast of the capital and just eight miles from the Syrian border.
"Right now we can't feel the impact on the Syrian population of those 70,000 children not going to school, but we'll feel it when they are 16 years old with zero tools with which to engage in life."
Children in the Zaatari refugee camp (Photo by Mariah Quesada)
In total, almost 3 million Syrian children are not in school, including over 2 million still living in Syria and another 700,000 residing in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.
According to UN children's charity UNICEF, which launched its No Lost Generation initiative in 2013 to try to address the problem of Syrian children missing out on education, a lack of schooling opens adolescents and youth up to isolation and depression, and can leave them more likely to engage in criminality, turn to drugs and alcohol, or be radicalized. They're also more prone to stress and likely to experience some form of physical or emotional breakdown at a young age.
Eleven-year-old Chaled is an example of a child at risk, having fled Syria along with his parents and seven siblings eight months ago. Escaping Raqqa — the de facto capital of Islamic State (IS) — in the dead of night, the 10-person family crammed into a truck with 30 more people, all laying one on top of the other, praying they wouldn't be caught and killed. Navigating Syria's desert roads, they made their way to refuge in neighboring Jordan.
Although Chaled's mother Haila is now safe in Amman, the anguish of her recent past floods her eyes and tears stream down her face as she recalls the day her life was forever changed. "Living under IS was horrifying," she says, recounting how they threw her father-in-law in jail and tortured him simply for letting her sit outside his house. In the eyes of IS, women should not be left "unattended."
After enduring more than three years of brutal IS rule, the threat of death no longer deterred Haila from escape, and she led her family on their bid for freedom. Today she sits with her eight children and husband, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with 28 people in central Amman, having traded in one life of hardship for another.
Once the matriarch and financial supporter for her family, she's now relying on her 11-year-old for their livelihood. Serving tea on the concrete floor of her crumbling apartment, Chaled explains that although he usually works every day, he took today off because it was too cold. Employed as a construction worker by his landlord, Chaled helps renovate apartments, carrying bricks, mixing mortar, and often using heavy and dangerous machinery.
Eleven-year-old Chaled. (Photo by Mariah Quesada)
"I went to the school just to look at it," says the skinny bricklayer, describing how he used his free time to walk to the nearby school and check in on his friends. "I want to go to school," he says. "But I can't."
Having dropped out of education four months ago, Chaled is the only person in the family with an income. After putting in 15-hour days, seven days a week, on a good month, Chaled makes roughly 50JD ($70).
"I'd love for him to study like his peers," said Haila. "We don't have any money and neither I nor his father can work." Haila says that both she and her husband have tried to secure jobs but that no one will hire them without the right papers.
But the longer children like Chaled and Ibrahim remain out of school, the harder it is to return.
In accordance with Jordanian law, any child who misses more than three years of schooling is not eligible to enroll in formal education. Children like Ibrahim, who have already been out of the system for so long, have little hope of re-entry.
It's this lack of prospects that makes it hard for parents and children to envision a prosperous future and, as a result, many have given up.
"Today, a Master's degree is the level of competition, let alone if the child doesn't have primary or secondary schooling," said Etyemezian. And as parents sit back, watching their children grow up without getting the required education, a deeper sense of helplessness seeps in.
"One refugee said to me: 'We're dying slowly here so we might as well go back [to Syria] and live or die quickly,'" he said.
Yet as grim as things appear, Etyemezian says that the tide is slowly turning. A recent visit to the Zaatari camp by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim saw the pair discuss the expansion of Jordan's economy, thus enabling Syrians to work so they won't have to rely on their youth as the sole income earners. There have also been talks about creating more schools in Amman for the thousands of children not receiving an education.
In the interim, youngsters like Ibrahim and Chaled continue to miss out on vital aspects of their childhoods and education. The longer they remain out of school, the less likely they'll even want to return. When asked what he hopes to do when he grows up, Chaled smiles and says proudly that he wants to keep working in construction. Although Haila is grateful that he's learning a trade, she says she'd do anything to give him a chance at a better future and not have to watch her son go off to work at 6.30am every morning.
Ultimately, she says, the goal is to return to Syria, put her kids back in school, and pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. "I just want to go home," she sighs, as a tear rolls down her face.
Follow Sam Mednick on Twitter: @NG_Barcelona