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A job and a bicycle: A refugee boy’s struggle to survive in Lebanon

A job and a bicycle: A refugee boy’s struggle to survive in Lebanon
In Lebanon, child labour has become a growing challenge, in large part due to the impact of the Syrian crisis on the economy and on families struggling to survive
In Lebanon, child labour has become a growing challenge, in large part due to the impact of the Syrian crisis on the economy and on families struggling to survive. Increasing numbers of children have become breadwinners for their families, toiling long hours for low wages, often in work that is hazardous and exposes them to violence, exploitation and abuse, as well as depriving them of an education. While progress has been made in placing many Syrian refugee children in educational programmes, around 70 per cent are still out of school in Lebanon.

BEIRUT, Lebanon, 2 July 2015 – Each morning, 15-year-old Ahmad rides his crimson red bicycle to a picturesque stone house on a small street in Beirut. At 8:30 a.m., he unlocks the gate with the keys entrusted to him and enters the tranquil front yard.

Sitting in the garden, Ahmad says softly: “I was happy in Syria, I went to school. During the war, we had to leave.”

Like many Syrian children, Ahmad carries the emotional distress of having witnessed or experienced violence, and having lost loved ones.

When asked about his friends, his eyes well up with tears: “I used to play with my friends … but they died.”

Ahmad fled Syria one year ago and came to Lebanon, where he started working instead of attending school.

First he worked at a pastry shop, but he was not paid a cent in six months. He left.

Then he worked long hours in a bakery for a low salary. He was badly treated by a colleague his own age, and the owner did not honour his promise to pay Ahmad the amount agreed on.

Ahmad then tried working in construction in another city, but it was physically too exhausting.


Ahmad was eventually brought to the Lebanese NGO Himaya, which means ‘protection’ in Arabic. He now works as a facilitator at their centre in northern Lebanon, helping to organize and run recreational activities for younger, vulnerable children.

UNICEF supports Himaya in reaching some 40,000 children and 38,000 caregivers in Lebanon. The NGO works on building resilience and tolerance, providing life skills training and psychosocial therapy to disadvantaged children and youth.

“I feel equal around them,” Ahmad says of the Himaya staff. “I’d like to spend more time at the centre, but the team makes me leave when office hours are over.”

Overcoming barriers

Tackling child labour is no easy task. Multiple approaches are needed to address its root causes, which include poverty, limited access to education and lack of support for children’s rights.

In Lebanon, the shortage of income-generating activities for Syrian refugees is also a major challenge.

“A child who is working can’t be taken and immediately transferred to school,” says Nizar Akleh, field coordinator at Himaya. “This child might have missed school for a long time, and also – this is the main reason, usually – there is a need for money to continue living.”

Following on the Lebanese Government’s strategy to eliminate the worst forms of child labour, UNICEF, in partnership with NGOs like Himaya, is raising awareness among communities about the importance of education and the rights of children, and providing learning opportunities for children and life-skills training for adolescents. This includes negotiating with employers, parents and others to allow children to work less, be protected from hazards, work in safe conditions and attend afternoon or morning learning sessions.

A safe environment

Although Ahmad needs to earn money, he now enjoys his work. He is learning skills that will help him get employed in the future. He is part of a team, and he knows he will be paid each month while his colleagues help him learn how to use money wisely.

In the future, Ahmad wants to become a mechanical electrician.

“Nizar is searching for another job for me in a car mechanics shop – in two days I am going to meet the owner,” Ahmad says with enthusiasm.

A token of friendship

As they sit together drinking mate tea in the garden, Ahmad and Nizar have a similar air of sincerity and responsibility. When they speak about work, their gestures become animated.

Ahmad tells us his bicycle was a gift from Nizar.

“He told me he has a bicycle at home. He fixed it and gave it to me.”

“We spend time together joking,” Ahmad says about Nizar. “He’s like a brother to me.”

One of us

“When we first met Ahmad, he didn’t look us in the eyes – he looked down,” Nizar says. “After one week, he started talking with us. Today it feels like he’s one of us.”

At a settlement area for Syrian refugees where Himaya organizes awareness sessions for women and adolescent girls, Ahmad interacts naturally with the younger children surrounding him.

“In my opinion, Ahmad will have a bright future,” says Nizar. “I can see Ahmad having his own workshop in the future, and I can see him as a successful communicator.”

Ahmad’s patience, courage, determination and maturity are summed up when asked who he aspires to be like. “No-one – I like myself. I like to be myself,” Ahmad says assertively.