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Syrian child labour, a ticket to Europe

A poorly organised education system for hundreds of thousands of Syrian children in Turkey is pushing children into child labour and families into the hands of traffickers
Nevin Omar, 12, working in the sewing workshop (MEE/Xander Stockmans)

“My wife is in a Turkish prison, she tried to go to Europe with a fake passport,” Rony Omar texts us. His father, Ali, did manage to reach Athens. His cousin was less lucky: “After four days of hiking through the mountains on the Turkish-Bulgarian border, Turkish soldiers put me in jail.” Ali had even made his daughter work to save enough money to pay the traffickers. After three years of murdered dreams, more and more Syrian parents are looking for a new life for their children. They consider child labour as way out, a ticket to paradise: Europe. Other parents still struggle to send their kids to school.

Nevin Omar working in the sewing workshop (MEE/Xander Stockmans)
Nevin Omar working in the sewing workshop (MEE/Xander Stockmans)
Exploiters become saviours

The streets of the Bagcilar neighbourhood climb the hills around Istanbul. Under a scalding sun, Syrian children are playing in the streets while their mothers sit back in the shade of tall apartment buildings. Ali lives in one of these buildings with his family. They found it through Ayse, a Turkish-Kurdish woman. About 30 people are sitting in the hot living room, many families coming from Aleppo and the village Kurdan. Just like in the old days, they visit each other for tea.

Ali’s daughter Nevin (12) sums up famous capital cities. She has not been going to school for three years now. Instead, she spends 12 hours a day working in Ayse’s sewing studio for €180 per month. “When we go to Europe, I will go to school again,” she whispers shyly. “If I see Turkish children going to school and I can’t, it makes me sad.”

The next morning, Nevin gets started with her sewing machine, stitching labels from an Italian brand onto the pullovers. Her boss Ayse produces knitted clothes for stores in downtown Istanbul. “I am helping these children by giving them work,” she says. Even exploiters become angels for suffering Syrian families, yet Ayse is not the stereotypical exploiter. She is a young woman who was also forced to bury her dreams. “I wanted to become a lawyer, but my father forced me to marry and quit school,” she says with the ticking of sewing machines in the background. The next lost generation is sitting in her workshop.

Sewing machines for playmates

Employing Syrians is lucrative for Ayse since she can pay them lower wages. In October 2014, however, Turkish President Erdogan announced that child labour under the age of 15 would be punishable, and at a conference in Berlin about the Syrian refugee issue, world leaders vowed to fight exploitation of Syrians in the labour market. Ironically, this protective measure would hit these Syrian families. Because of low wages, children have to work as well to pay tuition fees for Syrian schools in Turkey.

Nevin Omar's father shows the date of his interview with UNHCR (MEE/Xander Stockmans)
Nevin Omar's father shows the date of his interview with UNHCR (MEE/Xander Stockmans)
Nevin is running around the workshop to look for yarn. She listens to our conversation with Ayse for a moment and then loyally continues working. She carries out all sewing movements as if they have become a part of her body. In school, she used to have playmates and would look up to her teachers. Today, her playmate is a sewing machine, and her example a boss in a sewing studio. She does not remember anything she learned in class in Syria. The bond with friends and school has been broken.

“What if our children were to learn Turkish?” Nevin’s mother asks during our next visit to the family. “What do they gain from it if they are not allowed to integrate in this country? We are only guests here and are not granted the legal status we need to build a life.”

Nevin’s older brother, Rony and his wife are waiting to have children until they know where they can grow up. “We don’t want to go to Europe, but if you get recognised there, at least you know that nobody can prevent your children from going to school,” he says. This was two weeks before his wife undertook the migration attempt that put her in prison. Because, what they did not know back then was that the European Union had reached an agreement with Turkey to stop the refugees, as part of a policy to contain the Syrian crisis. The governor of Gaziantep boasted that he has sent 2000 Syrian families from cities to refugee camps. Ironically, the fear this policy generates is yet another factor pushing Syrians to reach Europe faster.

As part of a Readmission Agreement Europe obliged Turkey to intensify its border controls to prevent refugees from reaching Europe. Turkey also has to build additional “shelters” to detain people who are caught and buy new high-tech border security equipment. In exchange, Turkish citizens will no longer have to apply for a visa to travel to Europe in the long run. European and Turkish officials claim that the EU-Turkey deal will not affect “real” refugees. The story of the Syrian Omar family shows the opposite. Human Rights Watch has already exposed the illegal push-backs.

Tears of an entire people

There is one little twig the Omar family had hoped to grasp in the whirlpool where they landed: the United Nations. Yet, their interview with UNHCR is not scheduled for months. Ali does not have this much time. He decided to not trust the UN, but to go with traffickers. He left his wife and daughter Nevin and took off as a pioneer to lay the first bricks for a new future. Three weeks after our conversation, he is in Athens.

After a long wait, he might have been able to obtain the status of political refugee and travel to Europe legally. Ali told us that he was running away from the PYD, the Kurdish party that is now controlling large chunks of northern Syria. When Ahien’s family fled Afrin and ended up in their village Kurdan, Ahien also left her school behind. Kurdan does not have a school for the children, nor jobs for the parents, so they moved to Gaziantep in Turkey. There, her father occasionally managed to work as a carpenter, but ever since he had an accident, the family has been without an income.

They had to pack up their belongings once again and travelled to Istanbul. They managed to get by with their savings for a little while, but then the axe came down on Ahien: she had to go out to work, to make a living for her family.

A girl from the same village did succeed in fleeing to Belgium with her family. She is going to school in the city of Leuven and already speaks Dutch. Ahien, equally ambitious, is working in a Turkish sewing shop for €180 per month. “I want to go to school as well. Every time I visit my uncle, who is a journalist, I snoop around in his library,” she admits shyly. We notice a sparkle of jealousy in her eyes. Cautiously we ask if she is still in touch with her friends from school, but this seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. “I don’t even know if my friend is still alive,” she says while she walks into her room crying. In her tears we see the tragedy of an entire people.

Between the devil and the deep sea

A little bit later, Ahien shows us her last Facebook status: “If a blind person asks you to explain what the world looks like, what do you say? I would say: at least you do not have to see what our world looks like.” Every day she carries her pain in silence when she heads into the metropolis to work for a living. Facebook is her only window onto the real life she left behind when becoming a worker. Every night she ponders about Europe, but her brother Jewan (12) is in doubt. “Mom and dad say life is better there, but I want to go back to Syria’, he says. "My life consists of working 12 hours a day now, followed by eating and sleeping. I can’t even write my own name."

The fact that Syrian parents are turning their children into victims is their nightmare. For families without money, child labour is the only way to send their kids back to school. They are stuck between the devil and the deep sea, with their neck between two swords: the slavery of child labour and ignorance in Turkey, and death in Syria. In front of them is a wall: Fortress Europe. On the battlefield fighters shout “victory or death”. In the megalopolis their victims whisper “slavery or death”.

Prepared for the illusion of return

Farhad is another father struggling to send his daughter, Viane to school. He cannot pay the registration fee. But this morning, Viane jumps up from her bed to get ready for a big day: we are going to enrol her at the school where she was a pupil until one year ago. Director Zalikha Jaafar is sitting at her desk between stacks of new textbooks. “I want to enrol my daughter,” Farhad says firmly. “The registration fee has been raised from €40 to €100,” Zalikha replies. Viane looks up and sees her father’s submissive gaze. Farhad must condemn his daughter to another year without school, unless he asks us for €60 extra, a humiliation. Viane is the first student to be enrolled for the school year 2014-2015.

Viane in her new class (MEE/Willemjan Vandenplas)
Viane in her new class (MEE/Willemjan Vandenplas)
The girl runs to the classroom, where summer classes have already started. She sits in the first row and straightens her back. The textbooks are open on the page “important people in Syria.” “Who was the first president of Syria after the French occupation?” the teacher asks in front of the classroom. “Shukri al-Kuwatli,” the children’s voices sound in unison. Of Bashar Assad there is no trace in the book, but lessons on democracy and pluralism are lacking as well. “Religious extremists have understood better than us the power of education to pass on values,” Suhair Attasi, former vice president of the opposition government, tells us later on. “Salafist clerics from the Gulf States pump fortunes in strictly religious schools, while the Western-backed opposition barely has money to pay teachers’ salaries.”

Recently, Syrian schools in Turkey received the new curriculum of the Syrian Education Commission, the Committee of the Syrian opposition government. It was printed with the financial support of Qatar Charity. Some 40,000 Syrian children in Turkey are now following this Syrian curriculum in Arabic. This parallel Syrian education system looks like a piece of Syria in Turkey. Just as Farhad leaves his daughter in the illusion that they will return to Aleppo, the Syrian schools in Turkey prepare the children for a life in Syria that might never come back. Meanwhile, the children are not prepared for life in Turkey: the Turkish government does not recognise certificates issued on the basis of the Syrian curriculum. Eighty-five percent of Syrian children in Turkish cities do not even go to school, but even children such as Viane, who nevertheless go to school after conquering many obstacles, seem like a lost generation.

Mohamed Meray, the former rector of the economics faculty at Damascus University, says, "We do not even need any opposition minister of Education. His salary – is it international aid to Syria? – is higher than that of a Belgian minister. No one is monitoring on how that money is being spent. My advice: give it to independent bodies that operate in the best interests of the child, such as UNICEF, not to a political body that is not established in the interest of the Syrian people.

"Give Syrian refugees in Turkey residence permits, put informal Syrian schools in Turkey under official supervision of an education ministry, enrol Syrian children in Turkish schools, sponsor more schools, prioritise education in donor programs, recognize diplomas awarded by Syrian schools in Turkey, give scholarships for university students, allow more Syrians into Europe. If all this happens, there is hope."

Sivan with her little sister. Sivan is 10 years old, has never been to school and can not read or write (MEE/Xander Stockmans)
Sivan with her little sister. Sivan is 10 years old, has never been to school and can not read or write (MEE/Xander Stockmans)
The 85 percent

Sivan is one of the 85 percent. She is 10 years old, has never been to school and cannot read or write. Just as the war broke out, she would start going to school in Aleppo, but schools were bombed. Her father, Idris had to sell his restaurant, her mother, Fatima had to close her hairdressing salon. Today they live in a claustrophobic room of an apartment block in Gaziantep. Idris works as a pizza maker on the ground floor. His monthly salary is barely enough for rent and food. “I work here illegally,” he says as we speak to him after a long day on the terrace of the restaurant. “Seven days a week, 12 hours a day, no holidays. I earn half of a normal Turkish worker’s salary.”

Idris is squeezed like the oranges he uses to make fruit cocktails in the restaurant. Is this their new life or is it just a passage to something better? Day and night, Idris is breaking his head over this question. “My sister in Denmark told me about the schools there. If someone would say, “You can leave now,” I would even go in pajamas. But first, we must save money.”

Roni Hossein contributed reporting for this story.

UPDATE: In October 2014, the Turkish Government published a directive that defines the rights under a temporary protection status for Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees will be able to register with the Turkish Migration Service, after which they will receive an ID card and thus gain access to health care, public schools and work permits. The directive has not yet been implemented.


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