Syria Crisis: A Mother Negotiates the Space Between her Family’s Wellbeing and Child Labor

Syria Crisis: A Mother Negotiates the Space Between her Family’s Wellbeing and Child Labor

Publication info

Mary Kate MacIsaac and Beatrix Buecher

In April 2012, Fairouz*, 27, fled her home near Homs in Syria, with her husband and five children.  Their house had been bombed and there was little left but to escape with their lives.  When they arrived in Jordan, they stayed only one night in Zaatari camp before Jordanian relatives sponsored them, providing them with “bail-out,” so the family could move to an urban center. But life in the city was not easier. 

 “There were 30 people in two rooms,” Fairouz describes their life with relatives.  “We stayed with them for four months, but then moved out. It was very stressful and the children constantly got into fights.”  They tried to stay with different families, but living in such cramped conditions was hard on the family. 

When Fairouz’s husband returned to Syria to attend a funeral, he did not have the proper permit required to re-enter Jordan. He was stuck in war-torn Syria and unable to be reunited with his family.  Responsibility for the family fell to Fairouz alone.  After some searching, she found a small house where her family could live by themselves.

“Even if it is difficult, I prefer to live alone with my children,” the mother says. “We now rent our own house; it is in very bad condition and expensive.” Each month she must pay rent of approximately $280, including utilities.  The simple house consists of one room, with a bathroom and kitchen outside, in a separate shed.

Of her five children, only one is attending school. Another son, Samer*, 12, is registered but doesn’t like to go. Instead, he prefers to help his family by selling tissues in the street. “He buys tissues from the market for half a JOD (approximately $0.70). He then sells them for 1 JOD.”  She says that on a good day, Samer can make $14, but there are other weeks when he barely earns a dollar. 

“He sells the tissues mainly to Saudi men. They are very kind and the area is close to the border. I put it aside for the rent,” says Fairouz.

With five children, the youngest of whom is only two, Fairouz cannot work on a regular basis. “Sometimes I find work cleaning other people’s houses,” she says. “I also have a girl age 13. She doesn’t go to school either. Sometimes she helps me clean houses.”   They can earn $14 during a full day of work, but often only work half days. 

Fairouz enrolled her children in school this year, but most of them prefer to stay at home or help her earn an income. Urban assessments conducted by CARE and others cite several reasons for not attending school, including expenses, bullying, and the need to earn an income. In a recent assessment, 19 percent of adolescent boys (age 15-18) left school to find employment. In the same survey, CARE found that 83 percent of families interviewed were carrying debt, with an increased average debt from last year. At least 10 percent of families interviewed said they use child labor as a coping strategy to cover their income-expenditure gap. (Researchers say this figure is likely underreported due to issues of shame, honor, and the desire to appear favorably.)

Fairouz admits that scraping up enough income, just to eat, can be difficult. “I cover my family’s expense from whatever my children and I earn during the month. I get food coupons, but the amount isn’t enough. I need another 100 JOD  ($140) to cover our food expenses.”

Last year, CARE Jordan began offering support for families through a conditional cash assistance program that encourages parents to keep their children in school and out of the work force. By providing a cash subsidy, CARE helps families offset costs, substituting it for the income otherwise earned by a child.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals.