Scuttling down small quiet allies in the north of Jordan, thirteen-year-old Amar clutches a bag of falafel and a fresh batch of pitta bread. Grateful for the extra warmth on a cold December morning, he holds the bags tight to his threadbare jumper. It had rained the night before and a thick layer of sludge carpets the narrow street. Careful not to get his sandals engulfed, Amar tiptoes along the damp edges before arriving at a small decrepit apartment.
Since fleeing Syria eight months ago, Amar, his mother and two younger brothers have lived in a rundown, one-room apartment in Ramtha. Beige paint chips off the damp walls and a patchwork of tattered rugs partially cover the stone floor. In the corner of the room, his mother, Hoda lies in a small makeshift bed. Paralyzed from the waist down, Hoda lost her mobility in an explosion that destroyed their five bedroom house in Homs and killed her husband of 15 years.
Two hungry faces cheerfully beam at Amar as he eagerly hands them the breakfast he bought that morning. His younger brothers have not seen him since the previous evening, as he had spent the night working at the local bakery. Working 12-hours a night, six days a week, Amar receives 36 dinars ($50) for his weekly labour. He earns enough to buy food, medicine and pay the rent of their overpriced apartment. With Amar's insistence, twenty dinars a month also goes towards bus fares for his younger brothers to go to school.
"Every day I help my younger brothers with their homework, it's easy for now but I worry that soon I will no longer be able to" he explains. From a middle class family in Syria, Amar attended the local boys school and was in fifth grade before the conflict began. He dreamed of being an engineer like his father. "We weren't peasants or beggars, everyone in the community knew us and respected us. We lived with dignity, I was proud to be my father's son. Now I take on his role, it's difficult but I know he would be proud of me."
Amar is among the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugee children across the region that are out of school and working to support their families. Children as young as seven have been forfeiting their education to work for long hours, little pay and in some cases in dangerous conditions. A recent survey conducted by Save the Children and Unicef found that 49 per cent of 3,500 school-aged Syrian children in Jordan Valley were working.
Syrian families are receiving financial support from aid organizations but the amount is not always sufficient and the assistance only reaches the most vulnerable. Many parents have been injured in the conflict or, due to the legal constraints in host countries, cannot seek employment and thus have no alternative but to send their child to work. Equally, with the rise in female headed households as men pick up arms and return to Syria, the number of child workers increases.
There are now over 2.2million Syrian refugees in the region, of which over half are children. Many Syrian children have missed out on months or even years of schooling and now struggle to continue with their education. A recent assessment carried out by UNHCR found that 80 per cent of Syrian school aged children in Lebanon and 56% in Jordan were not going to school. Although public school is free in these neighboring countries, the cost associated with attending prevents many families from enrolling their child. Drop out rates are high, especially amongst those over 12 years old. And early marriage has become common practice for teenage girls due to the security and financial constraints the conflict has placed on families.
The situation in Syria is even bleaker. One in five schools are no longer operating, either because it has been destroyed or been made into a prison, torture center, or a home for displaced families. Schools that do run are often ill equipped, lack teachers and have become targets to armed groups. With death and famine a daily occurrence education is no longer the priority it once was.
Today marks the thousandth day of the conflict. For over two and a half years, children have lived through a nightmare of death and destruction. Losing their homes, their schools and the carefree lives they once knew. They have witnessed the ease between life and death through snipers, shelling and torture. Unimaginable fear clogs dreams, as confusion has replaced hope. Children's innocence has been lost, as childhoods have been stolen.
With everyday this conflict continues we are at risk of losing a generation to despair, disillusionment, loss of hope and hatred. Futures are being destroyed by the day. If Syria is ever to rebuild its cities, communities and become a cultural country it once was, then an educated population is vital. How can a country regrow without doctors, engineers, architects and teachers, or live at peace without forgiveness and understanding. If we do not provide the Syrian children with protection, assistance and the right to an education, then not only will we destroy millions of children's lives but, we will demolish the chance for stability in Syria and the region.