In Turkey, Syrian Children Go to Work Instead of School
Reporting from Gaziantep, Turkey
“Do you remember Syria?” I ask her.
Fatima’s mother gives her a heavy look. A look that says, Syria is everything. A look that says, Don’t ever forget.
“Yes, I remember it,” Fatima says.
When they fled Aleppo three years ago, Fatima was only nine years old. We speak Turkish. When I met her last year, she was still learning. According to the Turkish government, she will never be Turkish. And yet, Fatima has been in Turkey for one-quarter of her life. She is becoming more a part of it everyday.
“What do you remember?”
“There were a lot of trees,” she says. “And people had more jobs. Our house had four rooms, not two. In Syria, I went to school.”
Fatima’s family came to Gaziantep through the border town of Kilis. Before the war, the distance to Aleppo was a two-hour drive and only 76 miles. These days, miles aren’t the best way to measure the distance. Refugees measure distance by the difficulty of borders crossed, by the hypothetical number of guns between two points on a map.
Time, too, is measured differently. Time is marked by who is present and absent at home. Who was forced to stay behind and who will join them later, Inshallah. Time is marked by the extent of their children’s forgetting.
YOUNG SYRIAN REFUGEES AREN’T IN SCHOOL
“I have a job now!” Fatima exclaims to me, happily.
There were few developments since last year, but this is one of them. Also, she tells me, she has a new baby brother. And she is wearing a headscarf outside of the house. Of those three things, she is most excited about the headscarf. Like a typical older sibling, she is least excited about the baby.
On Sunday, I watch her get ready for work.
“Where is my scrunchie?!” Fatima yells. “Where did you hide it?!”
She goes after her little brother. He grins as they tumble to the ground in a fight. Fatima’s grandmother shouts at them to stop. She tries to brush the tangles out of Fatima’s long locks.
“Ouch!” she cries. “Can mom do it?” Her mom puts down the baby to help.
It is an ordinary morning at home and Fatima could be any little girl getting ready for school. Except that she’s not.
CHILDREN AT WORK IN TURKEY INSTEAD OF PARENTS
Fatima works seven days a week, ten hours a day for 45 cents an hour. Along with her older brother, Fatima is the family’s breadwinner. She makes only a third of the legal minimum wage.
She is one of 2.5 million Syrian refugees who moved to Turkey since the war began six years ago. In Gaziantep, the children get jobs much easier than the parents. Almost no Syrians are legally permitted to work in Turkey, but children are smaller, less political. They are also cheaper.
The government of Turkey has promised Syrian refugees the “right” to go to school. In reality, few Syrian children are welcomed to do so. Some families say there are hidden fees, like the bus to school. Others say that school administrators flat out refuse to take them.
Approximately 800,000 Syrian children in Turkey are school-age. But from 2014 to 2015, public schools in Turkey registered only 36,655 Syrian children.
“I am 13 but I told my boss I’m 14,” Fatima tells me.
Actually, she is 12 years and 9 months old. But isn’t it just like an almost-teenager to want to be older?
Before she left Syria, she was learning to read Arabic. Now she can only remember how to write her name. In Turkey, schools teach in Turkish and use the Latin alphabet. Even if Fatima could afford the bus to go to school, even if there was an empty place for her, she would be years behind the other kids her age.
A GENERATION LEFT BEHIND
Of the women in the family, only Fatima’s mother is literate. Fatima’s grandmother, Feride, was born in Turkey and considers herself Turkish, but the government disagrees. Because of her lack of citizenship in any country, she is considered “stateless.”
Feride regrets that the life and wealth of her family seems to be moving backwards.
“I never learned to read, not in Arabic and not in Turkish either,” she laments. “I’ve been working a lot. My whole life.”
There are no newspapers in the house and the family has no internet access. They get their news from the television and from other people. As we drink tea, the newscast flashes to scenes of airstrikes hitting Syria and the buildings on screen look like pock-marked honeycombs, a grey and dusty unraveling.
“What do they know about us in America?” Fatima’s mother asks me.
“Not much,” I say. “They know about the people dying in the boats to Europe. They know Syrians want to come to America.”
“When are they going to do something about the war?” she wonders.
“I don’t know,” I tell her.
She glances back with a mix of surprise and resignation. As if she expected more from me. As if she expected my privilege to extend to better answers. She can see from my expression that I did, too.
GROWING UP TOO SOON
Fatima looks at herself in the tarnished mirror of their darkened living room. She pulls her hair into a high bun and lays a shiny, dark pink scarf along her hairline. She holds straight pins in her mouth and fixes every fold just so. When she finishes, she gives me a small grin. She is new to this particular task of womanhood, but she is already quite good at it.
On the walk to work, she warns me not to tell her boss her real age.
“He is really mean,” she says. “Really awful. He yells at me all the time.”
She smiles and waves at her friends along the way. There are children at work now in every shoe store and cell phone store and baklava bakery we pass. Child labor in Turkey isn’t really a secret. I doubt her boss would be surprised to know her age.
But she’s afraid. And when she is, it’s true that she does look older.
“We only have ten minutes!” she says, picking up the pace.
I want to tell her to slow down. She seems happy to have somewhere to go.