Though he’s only 15 years old, school is a distant memory for Mohammed. He and his five siblings haven’t been in a classroom since they fled Kobani, Syria, three years ago and came to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. To help support his family, Mohammed now works full-time in an industrial area on the outskirts of Erbil. Instead of studying, he spends his days changing oil and fixing axles. “I miss my school in Syria,” he says. “I miss my pens and books and I’d like to have them back.”
Above, a collection of scrap metal and spare parts in an industrial area in Erbil near the shop where Mohammed works - a stark contrast to his life before the conflict in Syria. “We used to live on a farm in Kobani. My father had a truck and worked on the farm and we went to school,” he says.
Both Mohammed and his brother work in the industrial area. His father found a job when the family arrived in Iraq, but because of the deepening economic crisis in the Kurdistan region he lost the job, leaving Mohammed and his brother the sole breadwinners for the family.
Before its disastrous plunge into armed conflict, almost all Syrian children went to school and literacy rates were above 90%. Five years into the crisis, UNICEF estimates that some 2.1 million Syrian children are out of school inside Syria, and, like Mohammed, another 700,000 are missing out on their education in neighbouring countries. In addition, close to 2 million Iraqi children are out-of-school inside Iraq.
Mohammed’s friend Bakr, 12, also from Kobani, works in the industrial area in a tea shop. He says that even if the conflict is over, returning to Syria would be difficult because his family’s house has been destroyed. At the tea shop Bakr makes 5,000 IQD per day (about US $4.50). As a result of the economic crisis in the Kurdistan region, business is decreasing. “About two months ago we used to have a lot of customers,” he says. “But now there are less.”
Above, Mohammed reaches for a tool while working underneath a car in the repair shop. “We repair 10 to 20 cars each day,” says his boss. “We change the filters and the oil. Mohammed does as much work as an adult man, but I don’t let him do hard work like carrying heavy things.”
On the wall in the car repair shop are faded photos of other children who’ve worked there in the past. The shop owner says he started working as a mechanic himself when he was seven. He hired Mohammed as a way to help him and his family. “One day, I saw Mohammed in the tea shop opposite to us. He looked sad. I offered him a job at my place and he came and started working for me. I taught him everything he needs to know about being a mechanic. When I can, I help Mohammed and his family by giving them sugar, rice, clothes, and household necessities.”
Mohammed, his brother and friends walk home after a day of work. In Iraq, nearly 77% of refugee children from Syria have worked to support their families, and 70% have missed at least one year of school.
Here Mohammed’s father, mother and three of his five siblings stand together for a portrait in the yard of their rented house in Erbil.
“I want my children to go back to school and have a better future,” says his mother Darsim.
Text by Ala Abdullah and Lindsay Mackenzie. All images © UNICEF/Cengiz Yar
For more information:
- UNICEF, “No place for children: The impact of five years of war on Syria’s children and their childhoods,” 2016.
- UNICEF and Save the Children, “Small hands, heavy burden: How the Syria Conflict is driving more children into the workforce,” 2015.
- UNICEF, “Violence denies millions of children across Iraq access to education,” 2015.