DAMASCUS — Mohammad, a 13-year-old from the Husseiniya neighborhood in Damascus, left school after the seventh grade. He says that after his father was killed by fighting in the family's neighborhood, he had to leave school and work in a sawmill. "My mom is sick, and I am the eldest of five brothers," he says. "We fled from our house, and now we live in a partially constructed house. The aid that comes from the Red Crescent is barely enough."
Truancy rates among Syrian students have increased dramatically since the beginning of the Syrian war. The country's minister of education told the pro-government al-Thawra newspaper that the number of students enrolled in Syrian schools in 2011 was more than 5.5 million, but for 2013-14, there were only 4 million enrolled, which amounts to a truancy rate of about 30%.
On the verge of tears, Mohammad says he is "not happy" with the work. "The sawmill only pays me 500 Syrian pounds ($3.50), per week even though I work from 9 in the morning until 6 in the evening every day except for Fridays. I feel exploited and wish I could return to school, but my mom needs the money."
According to UNICEF, more than a million Syrian children have fled with their families to neighboring countries, their education cut off in the process. Hundreds of thousands more have been displaced but remain in the country. UNICEF also reports that one in five Syrian schools has been damaged.
With family resources dwindling, even children with access to schooling are being pulled from class and sent to work. There, many are mistreated by their new employers.
Eleven-year-old Samir has not attended classes since the fourth grade and now works with his 14-year-old brother in a falafel restaurant.
"I clean tables in the restaurant and bring food to customers," he says. "The owner of the restaurant beats me and calls me bad names whenever I go out to play a little bit with the kids, and he threatens us every time my brother runs away from work."
No other choice
His mother defends her decision to allow her son to work. After her husband disappeared a year ago, she rented a makeshift room on a roof for her and her four kids for 2,000 Syrian pounds ($13.50) per month. It's owned by the same man who owns the restaurant.
"I work cleaning the building's stairs and hallways so we don't end up on the streets," she says. "I never wanted my kids to leave school, but they failed [classes] last year, and I can’t help them with their studies. The challenges of our lives are overwhelming.”
Children for whom school is no longer possible work some of the most physically demanding jobs available to child laborers. Some carry crates into local vegetable markets and are compensated by the load, while others cut wood or work in the soap and cleaning supply factories that are spread out along Kasweh Road or Jdeidah in rural Damascus. The factories expose them to chemicals that often make them sick.
Lu’ay, a 15-year-old from the city's al-Dahadeel neighborhood, left school in the ninth grade and now works in the vegetable market.
"There are those who sexually molest young children, and no one dares to stop them because they would injure anyone who would try to stop them," she says. "I wish I could complete my studies, but my father is disabled, and we are a large family of seven. I don't want my mother to have to work as a housemaid."
She and some other young female truants find themselves in the professional workplace, but the majority help their mothers at home with sewing, cooking and other domestic trades before being married off earlier than they might have been before the conflict, which their mothers think will ensure a better future.
It doesn't always work. "Most truant girls marry early, and some get divorced after a short period of time, often returning to their parents with a child," says Ula, a school principal from Sahnaya.
"This makes it harder on the parents, who had the girl get married in order to preserve scant family resources. Unfortunately, there isn’t sufficient awareness about the importance of education. Even for those who appreciate education, difficult circumstances have forced them to have their children leave school to work."