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A Byproduct Of A Refugee Crisis: Child Labor


One of the ugliest results of a refugee crisis is child labor. Lebanon has a lot of it, both Lebanese youngsters and refugees from the Syrian war just across the border. Some have to work as young as 7 years old, often in agriculture. NPR's Ruth Sherlock visited one place in Lebanon that tries to give these children a way out.


RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: This looks like any normal school at recess. Boisterous children pour out of the classrooms. They chase each other around the playground. They shout. They laugh. They're curious about me, the stranger with a microphone.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Marhaba. I love you.

SHERLOCK: But these children have had an anything-but-normal upbringing.

LEILA ASSI: They work under the sun. They work in agriculture. They work with person that they shout on them. They violent them. So they are not living their childhood.

SHERLOCK: Leila Assi runs a program to combat child labor for the Beyond Association, a Lebanese aid group.

ASSI: We're trying to give them the normal life that is their right.

SHERLOCK: The center tries to ready these children to go back to school. There are art projects. They learn math, Arabic and even some English.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Listen to the music, and jump up high.

SHERLOCK: Lebanon has huge numbers of child workers. The Ministry of Labor estimated there were 180,000 children working as of four years ago. And even more Syrians have fled their war and taken shelter in Lebanon since then, meaning that more children have joined this illegal labor market - because for many, if they don't work the family doesn't eat. So to get the children into this educational center, Beyond tries to help the parents find jobs. And they give free child care for babies or toddlers so that the mothers can work.

We sit on a step outside a classroom where the older children are having music lessons. We speak with Raha and Israa who are both 12 years old. The kids' parents aren't around, so we don't use their last names.

RAHA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Raha from Aleppo was 7 when her family fled Syria. She remembers her life before.

RAHA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: There was her school, her house, her books, she says. In Lebanon, she has spent the last five years working in the fields picking potatoes and cherries. She started at 4 a.m. and got $2 for a whole day's labor. Now her mother works clearing rocks from the same fields. At $7 a day, her mother's pay is still a pitiful wage, but it's almost three times what Raha made. And it means Raha can come here.

ISRAA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Israa lost her father to the war in Syria. In Lebanon, she also worked in agriculture.

ISRAA: (Through interpreter) The sun would really hit us when we were out there. And sometimes I would cut my hand with the knife that we used to cut the plants.

ISRAA: When Israa first came to the center, she was too traumatized to speak, said Assi.

ASSI: She stayed one year without talking.

SHERLOCK: Slowly, though, she found her voice. And then she started singing. This is Israa and Raha performing for their classmates.


ISRAA AND RAHA: (Rapping in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: They wrote this rap with their music teacher, and it talks about their rights as children. Raha says she wants to be a journalist when she's older. Israa just wants to sing.


ISRAA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Zahle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.