ISTANBUL — At a textile shop in the working-class neighborhood of Zeytinburnu, Muhammad Samir Kassar reflects on his life today and the one he once had. The 16-year-old Syrian boy and his family fled Aleppo, eventually finding their way to Turkey’s largest city and cultural and economic hub.
When Muhammad left Syria he also left school, walking away from the ninth grade after midterm exams. With his family unable to pay for school, Muhammad went to work. Today he labors 12 or more hours a day at the shop, hemmed into a fluorescent-lit basement alongside other children who hunch over sewing machines and ironing boards. The odors of toxic chemicals hang in the air.
“My dream was to become a doctor, but I became an ironer instead,” the boy says in the shop’s office. “If I had the chance [to go back to school] I would continue.”
While 330,000 Syrian children are enrolled in schools in Turkey, more than 500,000 others share Muhammad’s plight. A lack of educational resources from the government, along with pressure to earn money for their cash-strapped families frequently push Syrian children into the workforce, often undocumented and at risk of violating Turkey’s labor laws.
Turkey, which hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country, is now offering the world’s largest window into how the refugee crisis of today may transform into an even greater future peril: a lost generation of youth who fail to get adequate education for tomorrow’s jobs. These children often arrive in Turkey suffering from nightmares, sadness, depression, anxiety and a lack of social skills, say activists.
“Most of them are not going to school,” says Leyla Akca, director of Project Lift, a group in Istanbul that works with Syrian families to treat the traumas of war and send the children back to school. “They’re used to getting interruptions in their schooling and that really negatively affects them because that is where we learn social skills. That is where we learn community and sense of belonging.”
Turkey is home to slightly more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world, according to UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency. Childrencomprise slightly more than half of that group.
Muhammad and his family’s experience is similar to other Syrians arriving in Turkey. His parents were unable to pay to send him and his brother to school. Living costs in Turkey were greater than anticipated says Abeer, Muhammad’s mother.
“I wanted him to continue his study but the situation didn’t allow us,” Abeer says. “He was very good [in school]. I’m sad he had to leave, but we had to. What can we do?”
While there are no firm statistics on the number of children in Turkey’s workforce – most working children are undocumented – UNICEF has been urging the Turkish government to develop programs to protect children and ensure their rights to go to school.
“In all circumstances, Syrian children also should be protected from child labor,” Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF’s representative for Turkey, said in a June news release. “They should be able to go to school to prepare better for their future and to rebuild their country as soon as it will be possible. Children must not be robbed of their childhood.”
Under Turkish law, employment of children under 15 is prohibited. Employment of children between 15 and 18 years of age is allowed under special conditions and cannot interfere with schooling. In any case, juvenile workers may not work more than 40 hours a week. Turkish law also prohibits discriminatory practices in the workplace, such as paying undocumented refugees a lower wage or providing unsafe workplace conditions.
In July, the Turkish government said they spent more than $10 billion in helping refugees. The government also told the local newspaper, The Daily Hurriyet, that some Syrians might win Turkish citizenship. In a survey of 125 Syrian households conducted by Turkey’s Support to Life foundation earlier this year, one in four households with children said one child could not go to school because the family depended on their pay.
The reality at most textile shops in Zeytinburnu is bleak. Payment for Syrians and most Turks working in the textile industry is not a living wage, according to the Fair Wear Foundation, a European initiative aimed at improving workplace conditions in the textile industry. The organization says the minimum wage in Turkey is $280 a month, which Turkish state-run unions say, is not “sufficient for a decent life.”
Two Syrian girls, Alia, 15, and Zainab, 14, say they each get paid around $270 a month, while the boys they work with make around $580 a month for working the same hours. Zainab was going to a Turkish school for a while, but had to leave.
“I was in fourth grade. Things came slowly to me,” Zainab says. “I didn’t finish the whole school year. When I had to take an exam I didn’t understand everything, so I left.” Both girls say that their families did not want them to go to school because they needed them to work instead.
Meanwhile, Syrian families are finding difficulty learning where to turn for assistance; awareness of welfare programs is not widespread in Turkey. Various initiatives by UNICEF and nonprofit organizations are assisting Syrians integrate into Turkish society. Akca, the director of Project Lift, says she hopes that part of the 3 billion euros – about $3.3 billion – that the European Union intends to distribute this year in Turkey can come to her organization. She says she would like to hire qualified professionals who can extend the program to other cities across Turkey.
Funding Turkey’s social safety net is the European Union’s largest humanitarian project to date, the EU’s Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Christos Stylianides, recently told the media. While the EU is hoping to distribute the money on a project basis, Turkish officials say disbursement through nonprofit organizations is slowing the process, according to Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet Daily.
The Turkish Ministry of National Education is allowing children to enroll in Turkish-language and skills-training courses, but overall the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees stated in a report that the biggest obstacle organizations and Syrians face is a lack of awareness of resources and “insufficient civil society capacity to meet demand.”
Akca warns that not caring for Syrian children now risks a greater future threat.
“They are going to become the actual threat or the enemy in the future. Because they are going to be resentful, they are going to still be poor, they are going to be uneducated and they are not going to know the language.”
Muhammad Abunnassr provided reporting for this report.
This story originally appeared in US News & World Report