More than five million people have fled Syria since the conflict began, and half of them are children.
Erbil, Iraq – In the 36-degree noontime heat, 12-year-old Mohammad Fadae, a refugee child from the Syrian city of Qamishli, prepared to leave for his job at an auto shop outside the Kawergosk refugee camp in Iraq’s Erbil governorate.
“I make 12,000 dinars [$10] a day. I want to make more, but it’s a war out there,” he told Al Jazeera. “There are so many children like me working; it’s cut-throat competition.”
Fadae, who has lived at Kawergosk for more than two years, has tried many other jobs since his family fled from Syria to Iraq. To make ends meet, he has sold gum at traffic signals in Erbil, washed cars, worked at farms in villages near the camp and run a business smuggling aid items to refugees in his camp. He stopped the business after camp authorities threatened him with jail.
Inside Kawergosk, many children run around in tattered clothes, struggling to carry large water canisters or doing other chores for their families.
According to aid agencies UNICEF and Save the Children, only 45 percent of the children are enrolled in schools in refugee or internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Outside of camps, in the host communities where many refugees and IDPs are living, the situation is worse, with just 30 percent of children having access to educational facilities.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 school buildings across Iraq’s Kurdish region are being used as shelters for nearly 50,000 Iraqi displaced persons. Seventy-six percent of Iraq’s internally displaced children have also missed a year of schooling, according to UNICEF and Save the Children.
Fadae speaks Arabic, Kurdish, and broken English, which he learned at a UNICEF school in the refugee camp before he dropped out to work.
“I enjoyed school, but I also have to take care of my family, you know. I can do one thing at a time,” he said. Most of his friends have also left school to work. Traffic signals in Erbil are crowded with children selling small toys, combs and balloons for a small amount of money.
One of them, Al-Bakour Dawood, 13, said he was recently wooed by a man he met at the Citadel market, in the centre of Erbil.
“He said he will give me $100 if I go with him after Friday prayers,” Dawood told Al Jazeera.
I enjoyed school, but I also have to take care of my family, you know. I can do one thing at a time.
His mother says she is worried that the man was trying to recruit him to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“The man told him he should fast, and pray, and be a good Muslim,” she said. “I have no doubt he wanted to take my son to an unsafe place.”
Local authorities in Erbil would not provide details about cases in which young children are targeted by groups such as ISIL. But one official from a local Kurdish political party in Erbil told Al Jazeera, on condition of anonymity, that “there have been many cases of attempts to radicalise and pick up working children from the streets. The authorities have been able to crack down on it”.
The official said many suspects are investigated by the Asaish, a Kurdish security force.
According to local NGOs, more than three-quarters of refugee and IDP children in Iraq work, usually between four and 12 hours a day.
Most refugee children went to school when they lived in Syria, “and literacy rates were above 90 percent”, according to a UNICEF and Save the Children joint report released this month. As a result of the crisis, the report added, “neighbouring countries are … struggling to cope with an influx of four million refugees, about half of whom are children”.
In addition to children dropping out of school to find work, teachers have also abandoned classrooms in favour of paid work.
“We have not been paid for seven months,” said Mohammad Nafee, who taught at a school in Qamishli before fleeing to Iraq. He now teaches at a school in the Kawergosk camp, but with two school-age daughters himself, he is looking for another job to secure their future.
“There are thousands of schoolteachers from Syria and Iraq who are looking for jobs in the Kurdistan region, but there is no funding to employ these teachers,” Sabhan Ahmed, who is currently the manager of schools in the Baharka IDP camp, told Al Jazeera. “Those who have been working have not been paid, so they are leaving.”
Government officials and NGO workers on the ground say salaries are not reaching teachers due to budget cuts from the Iraqi government.
The Ministry of Education declined Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Meanwhile, in Baharka, which is about 10km north of Erbil, 11-year-old Addem has been taking catch-up classes at one of the schools set up by Save the Children. Last summer in Mosul, ISIL executed his father in front of him, along with hundreds of other locals, including two of Addem’s uncles.
Addem comes to school fatigued, and often dozes through class, even though he enjoys attending. “I love school,” he said shyly. “It reminds me of school at home.”
Addem’s mother, Fakhra, said her son was fond of his schoolteachers in Mosul and excelled in his studies. “He was on top of his class.”
Her son used to read comics, play video games and tease his sisters, Fakhra added, but now “he is always lost deep in his thoughts, and never shares anything. It worries me he will lose his mind”. But she said she would not risk taking her son to a psychiatrist, for fear of the social stigma.
One psychiatric consultant working with an international NGO that works throughout Iraq’s Kurdish region told Al Jazeera that they have received far fewer patients than they would have expected.
“We have a sense of how many children here suffer from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], trauma and need immediate psychological help, but it’s hard to get the community to trust us and let us help them,” the consultant said on condition of anonymity, as she was not authorised to speak to the media.
At the same time, aid agencies have been trying to help children deal with post-traumatic stress, noting that schooling is an important way to help children return to a normal life.
“School is not just a place where you go to learn, but it is also a place where children build their ideals,” Sofyen Khafaoui, an education technical adviser with Save the Children, told Al Jazeera. “It shapes their current mind-set and helps them aspire to interact and grow.”