The eldest of five siblings, Mohammed dropped out of school to collect trash to burn in order to help his family.
Upon arrival, Mohammed’s grandmother welcomes him before helping him sort the garbage. She asks him to call his mother and aunt to bring out the pots. Then, she places three rocks close to one side of the house and fills the first pot with water. Underneath it, she stuffs a trash bag and lights it up, unconcerned with the thick black smoke or the toxic smell. She then casually sits down for a chat.
“In the beginning, we used to send him to sell bread. At dawn, before the sun rises, he’d go and buy bread and then sell it for a slightly higher price. But after the regime started raiding the bakeries, we prevented him from going there,” she said.
“The constant power cuts, the cold, the scarcity of diesel and its exorbitant prices all led us to ask him to gather anything useful to burn for warmth. They couldn’t find any wood or trees because they’ve all been cut down. Even gas is hard to come by,” the grandmother continued, before positioning the second pot and lighting a fire beneath it. She explains that the first pot is for washing up, and the second for cooking.
Despite his young age, Mohammed is acutely aware of the circumstances of his family and has risen to the task of supporting them.
“Two families live in our house, and our grandmother stays with us too. My father and uncle can no longer meet our needs due to the increasing prices,” Mohammed said. “Schools have shut down and most of my friends now work in transporting vegetables in al-Hal market. I go there often to get some vegetables in exchange for work, but I need to go to the dumpster every day to collect anything we could use to burn for cooking or washing up.”
Mohammed’s siblings and his cousins stand in single file waiting to be washed next to the fire while the smoke fills the air from the burning garbage. The smoke that fills their lungs is slowly killing them. Today, many children in Syria suffer from diseases contracted at unsuitable workplaces, most notably in landfills or oil refineries.
Othman, 10, works for a man who refines oil. Othman receives 150 Syrian pounds ($1) per day. Every morning, he goes to work outside the city and stands by the fire, putting his life at risk while inhaling the poisonous smoke. He works next to a barrel of boiling oil, which could explode should anything go wrong. Othman then heads out to the streets where he sells the diesel and refined oil before returning home in the evening.
“It’s true that this job is dangerous,” said Othman, “but it is my source of income to help my family.” He adds that he has gotten so used to the smoke that whatever he eats tastes like smoke.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), citing the Syrian Ministry of Education, reported in December 2012 that 2,362 schools, or the equivalent of 10 percent of the total schools in the country, have been either damaged or ransacked, while 1,468 schools were being used as shelters for internally displaced people. On Dec. 29, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said that no less than 3,873 schools have been damaged, including 450 that have been completely destroyed and need rebuilding.
Syrian students have told HRW that they had either become child laborers, child soldiers or aids to the armed opposition. Girls aged 16 and 17 no longer attend schools due to the dangers, instead marrying out of need or for lack of better, safer options. According to UNICEF, almost 40 percent of Syrian children have stopped attending school as a direct result of the ongoing civil war.
Mohammed and Othman are not the only Syrian children who have lost all prospects of getting an education because of the crisis in Syria, which has now lasted over two and a half years. Hundreds of thousands of children have met the same fate because of the war, kidnappings, shelling and other causes.
In liberated areas such as rural Aleppo or Idlib, many families refuse to send their children to school due to the newly introduced Islamist curriculum.
Ahmed, a former teacher in the town of Jarablus, which borders Turkey, quit his job after a number of armed factions forced the educators to deviate from the curriculum. He said they brought in sheikhs as educators to teach religion and Islamic jurisprudence and solicit students to join the conflict.
And for Mohammed’s four siblings who do not work, the newly reopened school in Manbij is out of the question due to the threat of arbitrary regime attacks. Warplanes bombarded the city center on the day of this report, killing 23 people — among them 14 children.
This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.