Amman, Jordan – Fourteen-year-old Mohammad Al-Zoubi carefully places a small pot of Turkish coffee over the high flames of a small stove, as he takes his next customer’s order. It has been two years since he began working at this little corner takeaway coffee shop in Amman.
“We lost everything back in Syria, and that is why we came here,” he told Al Jazeera.
The al-Zoubi family home in the southern Syrian city of Deraa was destroyed in an airstrike, he said. The blast wounded his father, and ever since, he became the main breadwinner for the family of seven.
“I have to stand on my feet all day [to make] coffee, clean, wash and take orders,” al-Zoubi said. Although he burnt his hand twice, he said he feels “luckier” than his cousin, who works at a grocery store next door. “He has to carry heavy boxes of things and clean up and move around a lot.”
But al-Zoubi’s story is not unique, as thousands of Syrian children have joined the labour market to support their families; aid agencies say child labour is a widening crisis that could threaten the future generations of Syrians.
“It prevents those [children] from enjoying their childhood, strips them of dignity, and interrupts their education,” said Maha Homsi, early childhood and protection officer at the United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF).
Specific figures on the number of Syrian children working in Jordan do not exist, but the Ministry of Labour estimates that around 60,000 Syrian children work across the kingdom. “Last year, we said there were more than 30,000 Syrian children working in Jordan, but now we think the numbers must have doubled,” said Hamada Abu-Nijmeh, secretary-general of the ministry.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has recently released two studies examining the situation of child labourers in Jordan. One studied children working in the informal sector and another examined the conditions of children working in agriculture in the northern governorate of Mafraq and the Jordan Valley.
Addressing child labour among the Syrian community is a big challenge for us as it is a socially-accepted practice that long existed in their communities, even before the war.
Both studies found that the majority of children working in both sectors come from Syria, and that economic need was the major factor forcing both Syrian and Jordanian children to work.
“Child labour has been used as a coping mechanism by several Syrian families as they will need to support themselves,” said Frank Hagerman, the ILO’s deputy regional director for the Arab States.
Jordan houses more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, but only 20 percent of them live in camps while the majority reside in urban areas.
Despite the assistance provided by aid agencies, urban refugees in Jordan struggle to make ends meet amid increasing food prices and high rent.
“We receive boxes of food, blankets, and toys every once in a while, but there are so many things that my parents and sisters still need,” al-Zoubi said.
A recent study by CARE International indicates that more than 90 percent of Syrians living in urban Jordan were indebted to relatives, neighbours, and landlords.
But child labour is also noticeable in Zaatari refugee camp, the largest camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan. There, children are seen carrying goods in wheelbarrows for a fee, selling coffee and tea, and working at stores and restaurants.
Displacement is one factor for an increase in child labour among Syrians, aid workers say, but tradition is equally important. “Addressing child labour among the Syrian community is a big challenge for us as it is a socially-accepted practice that long existed in their communities even before the war,” UNICEF’s Homsi said.
The majority of Syrians who fled to Jordan came from the southern cities of Deraa and Homs, areas whose inhabitants were regionally renowned as craftsmen and farmers.
“That is how our parents taught us good skills and crafts: they sent us to work as young as him,” said Ibraheem al-Harriri, as he points to a 10-year who accompanies him on his tours to sell Arabic coffee and chewing gum at traffic lights in Amman.
The ILO says the majority of child labourers are boys who mainly sell goods on the streets, work in restaurants and shops, or in agriculture. There is limited information about young girls who work.
“It is very difficult to assess the prevalence of child labour among girls, as they often stay at home doing unpaid work, and we have no means of assessing without accessing the households,” says Maisoon al-Rimawi, an inspector for the Ministry of Labour.
In 2007, Jordan had a child labour rate of only 1.9 percent. Today, of the country’s many child labourers, the ILO reports that more than 29 percent reported working for more than 8 hours a day, and almost 80 percent reported working 7 days a week, earning as little as 3-5 Jordanian dinars ($4-7) a day.
“This has an adverse impact on their health and wellbeing,” said ILO’s Hagerman, adding that it also jeopardises their educational opportunities. The ILO report indicates that 77 percent of Jordanian and 90 percent of Syrian child labourers were not attending school.
“Some of these [Syrian] children have been out of school for years now as some have been displaced so many times inside their country before arriving in Jordan,” Hagerman said.
With little resources, Jordan is struggling to cope. “This problem requires a lot of effort, varying from addressing the financial needs of the families to bringing children back to schools, and raising awareness,” Abu-Nijmeh, of Jordan’s Ministry of Labour, said.
He added, “It requires a lot of funding and it exceeds our limits and capacities.”