I Can Hear My Parents’ Hearts Breaking

I Can Hear My Parents’ Hearts Breaking

Publication info

Johanna Mitscherlich

Abdulwahad is standing behind the counter of a small shop in Mafraq. Socks, shoes, blankets and scarves are hanging on rusty hat stands. Hair ties, nail polish and pens are piled in little baskets made out of bast. Shampoos, perfumes, make-up and hair spray are stored on shelves. Abdulwahad is talking to a customer who has not yet decided which wallet she wants to buy. “See, this one has really nice leather on the inside,” he tells her and opens the brown purse. “Just imagine how your money will look in it.” She decides to buy it and he hands her the wallet in a blue plastic bag. He has to stand on tiptoe to reach her. The counter is too high for him.

Abdulwahad is 13 years old. A year ago, his family left Homs in Syria and fled to the north of Jordan. In the beginning, his father worked in Jordan and earned money so that the family could survive. Abdulwahad attended the 7th grade. His favorite subject was math. But then his father was caught by the police. Syrian refugees need to seek permission to work legally in Jordan.

“My parents were desperate and did not know what to do. I suggested to them that I could start working. I am a child. It is more difficult for the police to catch me,” Abdulwahad says. “My father became really angry with me. He told me that I should not work and that I am way too young to work and have to go to school. He said he would rather go back to Syria and die than have his small son earn the money for the family.”

His parents decided to go back to Zaatari camp where they had stayed for five days when they first came to Jordan. Abdulwahad was horrified. “I did not want us to live in the camp again. There is no dignity.” Finally, Abdulwahad persuaded his parents. He told them that it would only be for a short period of time until they will return to Syria. That was six months ago. Ever since then, he has been working seven days a week, 16 hours a day. Sometimes he does not get home until two in the morning depending on when the last customer leaves. He earns two Euros a day. With his salary, the family is able to pay the rent for the small flat in which he lives with his five sisters, parents and grandparents.

At first, it was difficult for him to adjust to working life, to talk to customers and to stand the entire day. He also had to prove to his boss that it was worth employing him. The boss had dismissed three other boys before Abdulwahad because they did not work fast enough. But Abdulwahad is not only fast, he is also very smart. He only needs to hear the prices of the thousands of different goods once to remember them. “I never forget anything. For work, this is good. When it comes to remembering the war, it isn’t.” His scratchy, squeeky voice reveals his pubescent voice change. The dark circles around his eyes with the scrubby brows tell the story of a boy who is missing out on his teenage years.

“For me the worst thing is to see the pain in my parents’ eyes when I come home from work. I can see and hear how their hearts are breaking when they look at me.” To cheer them up he tells them funny stories from work and his customers. And sometimes he also tells them sad stories from poor people who come to the shop so they will feel better, because they are even worse off than Abdulwahad and his family.

Abdulwahad does not have any friends in Jordan. His best friend fled to Libya and he has not heard anything from him in a very long time. Sometimes, other children throw stones at him on the streets. They tell him that he is worthless and that he should go back to where he came from.

“It hurts, but I am also proud of myself. They are as old as I am, but the only thing they do is pull pranks on other people and play. They do not understand how fortunate they should consider themselves to be able to go to school and live their dreams. I have decided to help my family and this feels good.”

What are Abdulwahad wishes for his future? “I want to feel safe again. One day I want to become a pilot and only enter shops, like the one I am working at now, when I want to buy something.”

Keep learning

Thirteen-year-old Abdulwahad smiles as he works in a small store in Jordan. His family fled from Syria to Jordan a year ago and survive on the income Adulwahad earns.