Selling packets of crisps under the sun between wind-blown tents at Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan, Samir* recalls the days he was able to attend school back in Syria.
"I enjoyed my time when I went to school and read my textbooks,” the 12-year-old told IRIN. “[Here] I am waiting to sell everything in this box before I can get lunch," he said.
More than half the Syrian refugees in Jordan are under 18, and while the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) does not have any figures, it says it has observed a “tendency” of Syrian children working in Za’atari camp. (It will soon be conducting an assessment of child protection issues in Jordan’s host communities in part to better understand this trend.)
Established in July 80km north of the capital Amman along the border with Syria, the camp is now home to at least 42,000 Syrians. Children there try to sell everything from cigarettes and sweets to vegetables and clothes.
Samir’s mother knows the importance of schooling, but says Samir’s work helps keep them alive.
"We want to live. Look at how we are living in this miserable place. How am I supposed to sponsor children when I am on my own?" she asked. Her husband died in the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Samir's mother, 32, says she uses her son's earnings to buy things the “aid agencies did not provide. They only bring us canned tuna, rice, and bulgur wheat. I have children who need to eat vegetables and fruit. We need winter clothing and blankets," she said.
Samir Badran, UNICEF’s public information officer in Jordan, said some of the working children are the family’s only breadwinners, their fathers either dead or still in Syria.
Nasser Ahmad was wounded during the conflict in Syria and lost one of his legs. He depends on his 15-year-old daughter who he has sent to work as a cleaner at buildings in the camp.
"I cannot support my children and it really breaks my heart to see them like this without good food or clothing. That is why I order vegetables from outside the camp and give them to my children [his boys] to sell," said the 27-year-old.
For some refugees, children working is more a long-standing tradition than a by-product of conflict-induced desperation.
"I see children hanging around the camp and when I ask them, ‘why don’t you go to school?’ they say they either have to work or that they would not be enrolled at school in Syria anyway," said an aid worker who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"It is our culture,” said Khaled*, who runs a shisha café at the camp, where his children also sell snacks. “We teach our children certain crafts as early as 10 years old."
Using the appeal of a new “state-of-the-art” education complex in the camp - higher in quality than many of the schools in Syria - UNICEF is encouraging children to enrol, even if they were not enrolled in their native Syria.
Some 3,500 students - from Grade 1 to Grade 11 - are currently registered at the school, which opened in November. Enrolment was lower than some aid workers expected, with the school able to accommodate at least another 1,000 students. (Before the complex was created, students used tents as classrooms).
|We are trying to change a mentality, a culture that has come with a mentality that boys should be working at a young age – UNICEF|
UNICEF says it is trying to spread its message about the importance of education through camp committees and child-friendly spaces run by the NGO Save the Children. It also provides uniforms, books and pencils as an incentive and will soon be offering remedial classes to help children who missed classes catch up.
“It is very important that children go back to school and continue their education,” Badran told IRIN. Children are the “future of Syria,” he said. “[Education] is the most important thing that they will have when they go back to their country.”
He said schooling also provides a routine that is “very healthy” not only for refugee children, but for their families.
“Education provides a sense of normalcy for the children and the family. When they go back to their tent, they have homework, instead of having nothing to do, and creating more stress on themselves and the family,” he said.
The number of children working in the camp is small, Badran said, but probably higher in urban Jordanian settings, where another 150,000 Syrians reside.
Thirteen-year-old Mohammad* stands at the traffic lights of one of the busiest streets of Amman, chasing a living.
"I sell chewing gum and sometimes water. I do my best to help my family as rent is too expensive here," he said.
But the practice is not limited to the refugees. In Jordan, some 30,000 children work, mainly in shops, cafes, and restaurants, according to a 2007 study by the Public Statistic Department and the International Labour Organization.
To address the wider problem in Jordanian society, UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Labour and the NGO Quest Scope to offer vocational training to drop-outs and reintegrate them into the classroom. This programme will now also be extended to Syrians, Badran said.
Syrians living outside the camps can enrol in Jordanian schools for free so long as they are registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). UNICEF pays their tuition, as well as the salaries of additional teachers and the cost of school extensions.
UNICEF and the Ministry of Labour plan to train frontline workers in the northern town of Mafraq about the psychosocial impacts of child labour, legislation banning child labour in Jordan, and the available educational opportunities for school drop-outs. The frontline workers will then be tasked with raising awareness within the community of the hazards of child labour.
“We are trying to change a mentality, a culture that has come with a mentality that boys should be working at a young age,” Badran said.
*not a real name