Ali Al Wasate may only be 13, but he has been forced to grow up. No longer in school, he has begun the painstaking search for work to help his family pay the bills in Beirut, Lebanon.
It was not always this way. When he was younger, living in Baghdad, his stepfather Ahmed had a well-paid government job, and Ali attended a good school. Nine years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, they felt that they had survived the worst of the situation. Then one day, everything changed.
“I was coming home from work one day, and two men with beards were waiting,” Ahmed said. “They accused me of being a spy and told me to leave the neighbourhood before it was too late. I asked them who sent them, but they told me it was dangerous to ask those kinds of questions.”
Convinced their lives were at risk, the Wasates packed up and fled to Lebanon. There, they became part of a small community of between 6,000 and 7,000 Iraqi refugees awaiting resettlement in a third country.
The family wanted Ali to continue studying, but when they started looking for a place to enrol him they were struck by the country’s high prices. Basics in Lebanon, such as rent, are often more than double the cost of those in Iraq. “We brought money that we thought would last two years. It was gone in six months,” Ahmed said.
The few local public schools were full, and they could not afford the fees for private ones, so Ali never went back to school. And with Ahmed unable to do manual work due to a pre-existing back problem, the family now looks to Ali to pay the bills.
“We wanted [to find him] a legal job, with protections, so we went to an organization that helps Iraqis find jobs. We begged them to offer him a job, but they said he was too young,” Ali’s mother Inass says. He has not yet found work, but is looking for something illegal in the manual sector.
Their story is increasingly common among Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. A new report by the NGO Caritas, which has been providing support for Iraqi refugees in the country for over a decade, says a growing number of children are being forced into labour.
While “overall, a minority of Iraqi refugees are using child labour as a coping mechanism,” the report said, families that are particularly vulnerable - “usually those with a large number of members and those with parents who are unable to work - are at risk for sending their children to work.”
The report authors interviewed nearly 100 Iraqi children between ages 11 and 18 who were suspected of working illegally. The vast majority were - with two-thirds citing money as the primary reason for dropping out of school. Tellingly, few parents had realized their kids would be forced into work when they left Iraq - 92 percent of the children had not worked before.
Iraqi refugees are restricted from engaging in professional work in Lebanon, and the majority, according to Caritas, are working illegally, often in manual work with few benefits.
The situation has been made worse in the past two years by the arrival of around 890,000 refugees from Syria. They have taken many of the manual jobs that Iraqis depended on, often accepting significantly lower wages. Caritas has also documented numerous cases of landlords arbitrarily evicting Iraqi tenants to move Syrians in for higher rents. The sheer numbers of Syrians, who often sub-divide properties, has pushed up housing costs for others.
At the same time, as Iraq has drifted away from the world’s focus, support to those fleeing the country’s violence has reduced. As financial support to Iraqis, principally American, has been scaled back in recent years and as numbers of refugees have declined from their peak of 17,000 in 2006, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has reduced its services in recent months, cutting support for those with chronic health conditions.
Joelle Eid, spokesperson for UNHCR, says that funding has been an issue but says they still provide as much as they can: “The scale of assistance to Iraqi refugees used to be higher than that of the Syrians at the beginning of the [Syria] crisis,” she says. “With the [Syria] crisis scaling up, assistance to Iraqis is becoming more targeted. Education grants decreased and became in line with that given to the Syrians. Hospital care covered only the life-saving, in line with the Syrians.”
Isabelle Saadeh, project coordinator at Caritas, says that many Iraqis feel they have received less support than their Syrian counterparts. “Syrians are getting a lot of distribution: blankets, stoves, winterization equipment. So they feel the difference between the two populations,” she says.
UNHCR said that Syrian refugees had received more winter aid, but that this was in part because they tended to live in colder parts of the country, whereas Iraqis were concentrated in cities and the coast.
Caritas has also reduced its staff and services as funding has been scaled back. “For regular assistance, we are choosing the most vulnerable from the vulnerable - it is really very difficult to do this.”
A matter of language
Money, however, is not the only reason children are swapping school for the workplace.
As Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, Iraqi families in the country are awaiting resettlement to a third country. The process usually takes between one and two years but can take much longer, according to Caritas and UNHCR. But many families wrongly expect that they will be relocated to a third country within a few months, and choose not to enrol their children in Lebanese schools, planning instead to enrol their children when they move on.
“We try to explain to them that if they don’t go to school while they are in Lebanon, by the time they are resettled it may be too late,” Saadeh said, adding that they had even asked some parents to sign papers promising not to remove their children from school.
Those who do go to school often struggle to keep up. Iraq’s curriculum is almost exclusively taught in Arabic, while Lebanon’s is predominantly in either French or English. As such, many children enrol but find themselves unable to cope with the different language.
Livan Oraha is 10 years old, but his schoolmates are not. After his mother was killed in the violence in Iraq, his aunt Nadeema fled the country with their family. Livan’s older two brothers, one still a teenager, were forced to work to pay the family’s rent, but Nadeema was determined that Livan would get an education.
But instead of enrolling him in a class with kids his own age, the school put him in the first year. This means that his classmates are six years old. Livan towers above them.
“We felt it was the right thing to do, so he could start again and learn the language,” Nadeema says.
She adds that she is determined for him to get an education, but hopes that it will be in the West rather than in Lebanon. “They all love education. I would like the oldest two to study as well, but we just can’t afford it.”