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In Photos: Syrian Refugee Youth Workers' Lives in Lebanon

The majority of able-bodied Syrian refugee youth spend their days on streets selling flowers and behind the counters of restaurants.
May 28, 2014, 12:10pm
Photo by Bill Kotsatos

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon — Standing on her feet in the same spot upwards of 10 hours a day in a dimly-lit room, “Taliba,” a 13-year-old Syrian refugee living in this lush farming region, folds boxes at a dress sock factory along with her sister five days a week, each earning 50 cents an hour.

“I absolutely hate this job,” said Taliba under her breath, aware that her employers are seated not far from her as she folds a pre-scored piece of cardboard into a small box top. “My school I miss most.”

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She and her younger sister “Fatima” — who both asked their real names not be used — want nothing more than to return to the classroom, which they last attended over a year ago before having fled their war-torn hometown of Aleppo, Syria with their family.

Sisters Fatima and Taliba
Ages: 9 and 13, respectively
Hometown: Aleppo, Syria
Current location: Zahle, Lebanon
Job Titles: Dress sock factory box makers
Experience: 10 months
Earnings: $20/week

Much of the Bekaa Valley is home to those like the sisters; young refugees left with nothing to do other than work in order to help support their families because a continuance of education in Lebanon is far too expensive.

Public education in Lebanon is tuition-based, starting at about $200 a month depending on the school. Coupled with the cost of school supplies, uniforms and daily transportation, Syrian refugee parents simply cannot afford the added cost.

Abdullah
Age: 6
Hometown: Aleppo, Syria
Current location: Zahle, Lebanon
Job Title: Family Farm Sheep Herder
Experience: 1 year
Earnings: n/a

Mohammad
Age: 10
Hometown: Homs, Syria
Current location: Zahle, Lebanon
Job Title: Family Farm Farmhand
Experience: 7 years
Earnings: n/a

For those fortunate enough to afford a public education are met with language barriers and overcrowding issues. In Syria schools are taught entirely in Arabic whereas in Lebanon, French and English are also incorporated into the curriculum.

Mohammad
Age: 13
Hometown: Homs, Syria
Current location: Zahle, Lebanon
Job Title: Pizzeria Worker
Experience: 10 months
Earnings: $20/week

Kes
Age: 12
Hometown: Homs, Syria
Current location: Zahle, Lebanon
Job Title: Pizzeria Worker
Experience: 2 weeks
Earnings: $20/week

Instead, the vast majority of able-bodied Syrian refugee youth spend their days on streets selling flowers, behind the counters of restaurants and serving patrons at cafes and shops.

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Hazim
Age: 13
Hometown: Homs, Syria
Current location: Zahle, Lebanon
Job Title: Automotive Tire Specialist
Experience: 9 months
Earnings: $25/week

Mohammad
Age: 12
Hometown: Hamah, Syria
Current location: Beirut, Lebanon
Job Title: Auto Mechanic's Assistant
Experience: 1 year
Earnings: $25/week

In the heavier populated Beirut, an hour’s drive east, refugee children are easily spotted on highways and main thoroughfares pedaling everything from belts and wallets to flowers and flash drives.

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Basil
Age: 17
Hometown: Homs, Syria
Current location: Beirut, Lebanon
Job Title: Flag Peddler
Experience: 2 years
Earnings: $40-$60/week

Basil, a 17-year-old football fanatic from Homs, Syria sells flags to passing motorists in and around Beirut’s Hamra neighborhood.

“If God wills it I will return [to school],” said Basil as he unfurls medium-sized Middle Eastern, European and South American country flags to display them upright into a cardboard tray before walking into oncoming traffic.

But as important as education is to Basil, his greater concern is bringing his family to Beirut. The trip for them to join him can cost $1,000 to $1,500 and each week he sends money to them back in Homs. Sharing a single room in Hamra with a cousin, Basil understands that it may take years before he sends his family enough money for them make the journey over the border.

During a good week Basil can earn 90,000 Lebanese Pounds (LBP), the equivalent to $60, more than double what other Syrian refugee youth earn.

Basil’s flags, which he purchases at cost then sets his own retail price, vary in sales pitch.

“Brazil and Germany are best sellers,” he said, and charges 10,000 LBP, or $6.60, for each. Other country flags fetch far less.

Although he does not consider himself a salesman, Basil pushes the Brazilian flag due to next month’s 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. He also heavily markets the German flags because of the country’s longstanding and successful national football team; both key selling points he undoubtedly reminds prospective customers as he matches pace outside their moving vehicles in Beirut’s daily rush hour crawl.

Syrian refugee boys play football with Lebanese and Saudi Arabian kids in an abandoned parking lot in Beirut, Lebanon on Friday, May 23, 2014.

When not on the job Basil plays football with friends and has his cousin teach him to speak English by watching YouTube videos. The slim, soft-spoken teen’s only complaint about his work concerns the discrimination he feels as he approaches possible customers.

Syrian refugee boys play football with Lebanese and Saudi Arabian kids in an abandoned parking lot in Beirut, Lebanon on Friday, May 23, 2014.

“Some [Lebanese] people do not like Syrians,” said Basil.

Mohammad
Age: 9
Hometown: Homs, Syria
Current location: Beirut, Lebanon
Job Title: Flower Peddler
Experience: 2 years
Earnings: $10-$20/week

Many other Syrian refugee teenagers who work agree but they, like Basil, manage to deal with whatever comes their way.

Ahmad
Age: 12
Hometown: Homs, Syria
Current location: Beirut, Lebanon
Job Title: Pizza Maker
Experience: 3 months
Earnings: $20/week

Resentment among the Lebanese towards Syrians runs deep. Syria’s occupation of Lebanon stretched from 1976 to 2005 and since the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, an estimated 3 million refugees have crossed the open boarder into Lebanon.

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Older Syrian refugees kids mostly concern themselves with working enough to save up for tuition, if not having to contribute to the family’s income.

Younger ones like Mohammed, however, a 12-year-old from Aleppo who works as a butcher in the Bekaa town of Zahle, doesn’t necessarily miss school.

Mohammad
Age: 12
Hometown: Aleppo, Syria
Current location: Zahle, Lebanon
Job Title: Butcher
Experience: 6 months
Earnings: $20/week

Working not far from the dress sock factory, Youssef, a 14-year-old employed at a Syrian-owned pastry shop, earns $25 a week, which is as much as 12-year-old Mohammed earns assisting a Lebanese auto mechanic on the border of Beirut’s upscale Raouché area.

Youssef
Age: 14
Hometown: Hraytan, Syria
Current location: Zahle, Lebanon
Job Title: Pastry Shop Assistant
Experience: 18 months
Earnings: $25/week

Hussain
Age: 12
Hometown: Homs, Syria
Current location: Zahle, Lebanon
Job Title: Barber
Experience: 2 years
Earnings: $20/week

Lebanese and Syrian employers alike state the same refrain; an “opportunity for any kid, refugee or not, to make $25 a week far outweighs them doing nothing and roaming the streets.”