A hard burden to bear
A dark economy
Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, Jan 1 – What takes most people by surprise is how big it is. Zaatari refugee camp, on the Syrian border in northern Jordan, hosts more than 80,000 people. It’s so big that it takes half an hour to drive across and is now Jordan’s third largest town.
Like any large town it has a thriving economy, with restaurants and markets, many of them located on a bustling main street, dubbed the Champs Elysees. But all this economic activity has a darker side: a serious problem with child labour.
Youssef, a wiry boy of 14, works all day with his younger brother transporting goods around the camp in a battered wheelbarrow. Between them, they make up to 2JD (3.5USD) per day moving cement, broken stone, luggage and even people.
They look tired when we talk to them, and most of the time that’s exactly how they feel. What little the boys can charge is decided by weight and distance, and with a family of 10 people to support, hard days are a necessity.
“The fact that my children don’t study anymore is really difficult for me,” says Youssef’s father, Abu Youssef. “I feel like I have let down my family.
“This is not a life we ever thought we would live. It’s not a situation we imagined was even possible."
Good old days
Before the crisis in Syria broke out, the family was doing well. Abu Youssef was a salesman. He had a car and he’d buy goods that needed repairs, like TVs or washing machines, fix them up and sell them on. It was a successful business and he could earn up 100 dollars a day.
This gave the family a comfortable life and they tried to stay in their hometown for as long as possible. But in the end, it became too dangerous and they had to leave everything behind.
“My life in Syria was great,” says Youssef. “I’d wake up in the morning, have breakfast and then go to school. After I came home, I'd do my homework, relax and then go out to play with my friends.
“But the bombing went on and on and we had no choice but to leave.”
Now Youssef’s life is very different. “Every morning I wake up at 7 o’clock, have breakfast, and then I work on the wheelbarrows until 5 o’clock at night,” he explains.
Then he goes home to wait for the next day – and home is a rundown caravan in one of Zaatari’s stony streets, one of the saddest households we have ever visited. All of the houses in Zaatari are desperately poor, but in most of them people have tried to make the best of what they’ve got. Here, though, everything is dark and the family’s belongings are shoved up against the wall, still in bin bags, as if their owners never had the energy to unpack.
Abu Youssef is a very proud man, but it’s clear that he has lost all hope – and his sense of shame at not being able to save his family from all this is palpable.
The whole family has been deeply affected by they’ve been through. Only the two babies, who were born in the camp and have known nothing else, seem remotely at peace. Everyone else is quiet and reserved.
“When I grow up I want to be something that can help my country and help my family and myself, like a doctor,” says Youssef, when we ask. But as every school day goes by, he gets further behind in his studies and his dreams become more distant.