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The sparks fly just inches from his face but Omar seems oblivious, bent over his welding torch, without a mask or goggles. With blackened walls, the workshop is like his second home here in Izmir on Turkey's western coast. He helps make office chairs for export to the Balkans, working up to 11 hours a day, six days a week – even though he's just 14 years old.
“Time goes by very slowly,” he tells us on his break. His cheeks are smudged with dirt and his eyes red. A broken front tooth peeks out when he speaks, the result of an accident a few months ago when he was hit by a car on his way home from work.
“When I get home, I wash, eat a few bites and sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. Then it's back to the shop in the morning,” he says. “I don't know what the future holds. We don't know when we'll die – today or tomorrow.”
Omar is from Aleppo in Syria and has been in Turkey for two years with his parents and four siblings. Of the other children, the two eldest – 16-year-old Ousama and 15-year-old Adel – work at a clothing factory. Together with Omar, they are the only earners in the seven-member family.
Kathimerini had traveled to Izmir in 2015 to investigate the activities of migrant smuggling networks. Dozens of migrants and refugees could be seen hanging around parks and squares, laden with backpacks. They bedded down in the rooms and hallways of cheap hotels. Deals were made in broad daylight and the local economy had adapted to their presence. Even barbershops sold life jackets, charging 35 Turkish lira (roughly 8 euros) apiece.
Two years later, we have returned to the same district, not to meet those who will be attempting the dangerous crossing to Greece and the European Union, but to speak to those who have been left behind.
The haggling with smugglers is no longer so obvious. Basmane's squares and parks look empty. But on the road leading to the airport, in the industrial zone of Karabaglar, some Syrian children are toiling away at adults' work.
In just three days we meet 14 children from Syria, aged from 10 to 16, who work at car repair shops and clothing and furniture manufacturers. We spoke to their parents and employers, though four businesses did not allow us to enter the premises when we explained our mission – possibly because they were harboring underage workers.
The narrow streets of Karabaglar stink of exhaust and burning plastic. Trucks riding on their rims under heavy loads thunder through without any regard for pedestrians. The metallic clang of production stops only at the tea break.
Safwan is 10 years old and an expert on the area. Slight and fleet-footed, he nips around with his steel tray from dawn to dusk, serving tea and coffee orders. When we meet the Turkish owner of the shop where he works it's already noon and the boy can barely keep his eyes open. He's wearing a blue Transformers T-shirt.
“I'm working to help my parents,” he says.
He gets paid 100 lira (around 24 euros) a week.
A few blocks away, in a signless building with grimy windows, 16-year-old Daoud is doing tough work, constructing chrome chairs. The metal frames are dipped – by adult workers – in tanks holding chemicals or water, then buffed by machine and dumped at Daoud's post. Dressed in a hole-riddled T-shirt with slippers on his feet, the Syrian boy rubs the frames with sawdust until every trace of water has been absorbed and then stacks them. His adult brother works in the same factory.
The problem of child labor did not appear in Turkey with the refugee crisis. In the period from 2001 to 2006 (before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war) Turkish authorities implemented two programs for cracking down on the worst forms of child labor, in furniture and footwear manufacturing, as well as auto repair. One of these programs was responsible for pulling 3,479 children under the age of 15 out of factories and sending them to school.
According to data provided to Kathimerini by UNICEF, Turkey had around 3 million child laborers in the mid-1990s; now this number does not exceed 850,000.
Turkey today is home to more than 3 million Syrian refugees, mainly scattered along the southern borders, in Istanbul and on the Aegean coast. UNICEF data indicates that over 490,000 Syrian children are attending classes at Turkish schools or temporary education centers. Another 380,000 children, however, are believed to be outside any system of education.
“This is not acceptable from a humanitarian perspective, but this is reality, unfortunately. I am confident that the Turkish government are dealing with the problem and will reduce the number of child workers. But it is not easy for a country dealing with such a large refugee population,” says Murat Erdogan, an assistant professor at Hacettepe University who specializes in immigration issues.
Turkish legislation sets the minimum age limit of workers at 15 for regular jobs and 18 for hazardous professions.
In Karabaglar, Zeydan, a Kurd from the city of Mardin, claims he has never employed a child below the age of 15. When we meet him at his factory, 25 workers are busy at the machines, sewing seams in women's trousers that will be sold in Germany, France and the Netherlands.
“I never went to school,” says Zeydan. “I have worked at all sorts of different jobs since I was 11. I don't agree with children working. I've done it and I know it's wrong. Sometimes, though, they have to.”
Beyond the tinted windows of the cubicle that serves as his office, we see three teenagers among the workers. One of them, 15-year-old Runi, hails from Syria. “My father has been left behind, which is why I'm working. I'm here with two siblings and our mother. My dream is to become a policeman, but I don't know if this will be possible,” he says.
Runi has not been to school since arriving in Turkey. Omar, by contrast, did a few months of classes before getting a job at the chair workshop.
“I'd like to go to school,” Omar says. “But school doesn't pay.”
The dilemma of whether to send their children to school or work is one of the key topics of conversation among the Syrian families we meet in Izmir. “My youngest son is 7 years old, and I'm definitely sending him to school. Not my eldest daughter, though, because we need the money,” says Yasser Alhasan. He explains that back problems prevent him from working, adding that his 13-year-old daughter has already found a job at a clothing manufacturer.
“Go to any refugee family and you'll find a similar situation,” he says.
We want to talk to Omar's parents as well, so we wait for him to finish work and ask if we can come and meet his family. One of his adult colleagues walks him to his door to make sure he gets home safely.
There, we are greeted by his mother, Cemile. She politely asks that we don't enter the living room as her husband is away and it would be inappropriate to have other men in the house. We are allowed in only when her eldest son, 16-year-old Ousama, comes home.
The father appears later. He's 37, tall and gaunt, with an unkempt beard. He introduces himself as Mohammad, asking that his last name not be published as he was a dissident in Syria and fears for the safety of his relatives there.
“You smell. You smell like metal,” he says to Omar.
The dirt from the factory is everywhere, even between his toes, even though he wore shoes.
“Is this any way for a child with a hopeful future to look?” Mohammad says, addressing us. “Omar has the freedom to choose. He can stop if he wants to, stop going to his boss. He's free. He is the light of my life and I am very proud of my boy. I feel useless because I can't help him and I watch him sacrificing his future and his studies.”
Mohammad has a complicated past. Other than a few medical documents he shows us to back some of his claims, he explains that he didn't manage to salvage any photographs or other evidence of his life in Syria. Given the situation there, it is impossible to determine the veracity of his claims.
He says that his family was wealthy. It had built a block of 18 apartments and ran five shops in Aleppo. He had learned how to make clothes as a child and had his own factory later, employing 13 workers.
It all came tumbling down when he was arrested and jailed for several weeks as a dissident, says Mohammad. That led to depression, several suicide attempts and a dependence on medicine that he is still on.
He chose to get his family to Turkey after his wife got sick. He says he spent all his savings on medical tests and interpreters, and that Cemile would be undergoing an operation to remove her uterus and a biopsy later in October.
“If God wills it, I will sit down at a sewing machine again. I know I am very good at my job,” says Mohammad. “But I cannot do both: sit at a sewing machine and take their mother to hospital.”
There are no fixed wages for child laborers in Turkey. Mohammad says Omar earns 125 Turkish lira (around 30 euros) a week. The two siblings working in the garment factory bring home 150 lira each (36 euros).
“Whatever they do, however hard they work, they won't be able to make more money,” says their father.
This corresponds to what we've heard about the wages paid to children, more or less, though some may get up to 1,000 lira a month. It is also likely, as Kathimerini gathered from speaking to various people, that girls get paid less than boys. Age also makes a difference, so the younger a worker, the less they can expect to receive in wages.
These children, however, are deprived of much more than they gain. “The institution of apprenticeship is deeply rooted in Anatolian culture. But the issue we are talking about, the exploitation, forcing children to work under extremely difficult conditions, is a far cry from that relationship,” explains a psychologist from a Turkish nongovernmental organization which has counseled 400 children and their parents in Izmir. The group asked that we keep its and the expert's name confidential due to the situation in Turkey since the failed coup in the summer of 2016.
The psychologist further explains that the prevalent mind-set among younger workers is “I don't want to work, but I have to.” Older children, teenagers, in contrast, are accustomed to having greater responsibilities and are convinced that they are acting for the good of their family. Either way, he stresses, child workers will rarely defy an adult or superior, making them that much more vulnerable to exploitation.
“If you dump too much responsibility on a child at a very young age, this can affect its development later,” says the expert. “When a child is working at an age when it should be playing, this effects its development both physically and psychologically. These children are likely to face psychological problems when they grow up, when they become adults.”
Omar's father, Mohammad, understands that he is not helping his children with the choices he's made. “I see them deteriorating before my very eyes,” he says. “Isn't it a shame for a child like this to have to work?” He says that he hasn't ruled out the possibility of trying to get his family across to Greece at some point with the help of smugglers. He believes they will have a better future in Europe.
In Omar's case the deprivation of normal childhood pursuits is obvious. There's another Syrian boy working in the same factory as him. They are on different floors but when they do meet, they exchange a few words. When Omar comes home, he's too exhausted to play.
His younger brother Hamzi and his sister Aishe – the only children in the family who aren't working – don't have the same problems. They play all the time, but Omar can only sit and watch. When we ask him about his future or what work he would like to do, he doesn't have an answer. All he says is that he'd like a better position where he's already at.
There's a cage in the family's living room with a yellow parakeet named Katsam. Omar bought the pet three months ago with money he saved from work. It cost 35 Turkish lira, the same as a rudimentary life jacket two years ago.
Katsam is Omar's salvation from the drudgery of work. He opens the cage door. The parakeet flutters around the room, seemingly terrified by this sudden freedom – until the boy catches it and puts it back in the cage.
Reporting: YIANNIS PAPADOPOULOS
Camera: ENRI CANAJ
Video editing: STEFANIA GIANNIKOU
Arabic translator in Izmir: RIVAN HAJI
Greek to English translator: CHRISTINE STURMEY
The production of this article has received funding from the Migration Media Award, funded by the EU. The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.
For Kathimerini and Kathimerini.gr.