In 2011 and 2012 the conflict in Syria has forced many university students to leave their studies in order to join the workforce. Due to the effects of the conflict, many find themselves assuming the role of the breadwinner. Since then, it is not uncommon for teenagers and young adults to work in order to support their families.
Women in their twenties act as shopkeepers, children peddle, and some young men join armed groups. These are people who have been forced to assume the responsibilities of adulthood. With no end in sight for the conflict and the future looking bleak, many have been prompted to leave their families behind in search of steady work. This bears severe implications for these people’s social and psychological future, and for the future of the country.
The Search for a Secure Future
After she graduated, Palestinian-Syrian Rim ʻAmmuri (20) was unsure of what to do. Her family was unable to send her to university in Syria and work opportunities were limited in Damascus. Before the uprising, her father was a tour bus operator in Syria and Jordan, but then he lost his job. Her mother is a housewife and her brother (17) is currently learning to barber.
In February 2015, she went to Lebanon to find better work and to enroll in a law school. For months, she stayed with a family friend, unable to find a job to not only support her education and living expenses but to support her family as well. She returned to Damascus, and decided to seek asylum in Germany in October.
However, this was not the end of her problems. Though Germany provides basic housing and living expenses, Rim is under significant pressure. “I have to take care of my home here, provide for my family in Syria, and look after my 13-year-old sister who joined me in Germany. I am responsible for my family and I have to calculate each trip, each expense. I shouldn’t have to worry about these things at my age,” she told SyriaUntold.Economic Motives
Rim is not alone in having to make decisions motivated by finances. Many have taken what can be considered drastic measures to protect one’s family from a hostile environment.
Hala Rajab (24) and her family are another example. Her father, former political prisoner ʻAdi Rajab, fled to Cairo to join the ranks of the opposition in March 2013, thus forcing her family to flee their village near Banyas to Latakia for security reasons. There, they found a one-bedroom apartment to rent for 17,000 Syrian Pounds (SYP) a month, which at the time was close to $300.
Her father's most recent political affiliations put the family in an even more difficult financial position. Hala’s mother used to collect her husband’s state employee pension of 13,000 SYP ($230) a month. However, for several months, the administration refused to hand over the pension due to “outstanding debts” she eventually had to pay for.
The family suffered because the mother’s state employee salary alone was barely enough to cover the rent as she had to pay back a government loan. The pension was eventually released to the family through some good connections, but not until they had suffered. They therefore realized that they needed a better solution to their financial troubles.
Hala, a fourth year law student at Tishreen University in Latakia, tried to find a solution for her family’s monetary troubles. On top of that, her older sister was also jobless and with a daughter to support. Ultimately, Hala was forced to leave university and start working in a nightclub and as a housemaid. She kept this second job a secret to not make her family feel as though they were a burden, especially since they had wanted her to finish university.
Hala’s family stood by her and supported her, while planning to leave the country soon. Her dad returned to Syria in 2014. He was an open-minded man and this helped her through the hard times. “Despite his illness, he would prepare dinner and wait for me [after the end of my work shifts],” she said to SyriaUntold.
Following his return to Syria, ʻAdi Rajab was arrested again and held for ten days. He was tortured and released on the verge of death. This only added stress and pressure on her family. She would also face questions from the taxi drivers, who would ask her every night why she was returning home so late. “I used to tell them a different story every time,” Hala said. She also faced harassment from the nightclub’s clientele.
Despite her family’s love and support, she still felt a significant amount of pressure. Hala left her job after she was verbally abused by her boss, who then refused to give her the monthly salary of 24,000 SYP (less than a $100 at that time). So she found a job that paid similarly as a shop girl for a record and films store.
Hala is not the only one who was forced to abandon her studies. Her sister (22) left school to work in a bar. There she was beaten by the owner. However, she never told her family until they resettled in Lyon, France in December 2015. She did not want them to worry.
Like many others, Hala feels that she has lost her youth and dreams. “When my father was alive, he had saved enough for me to study abroad after I graduated,” she told SyriaUntold. “Now, with the devaluation of the Syrian pound, that amounts to nothing.”Using Arms to Stave Off Poverty
ʻIsam1, who is now 16 years old, was forced to flee as-Sabinah, a town in the southern Damascus outskirts due to fighting in mid-2012. He, his mother, a younger sister and his baby brother went to live with his mother’s grandparents.
In early 2015, he received word that his father, a fighter in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), had been killed. This left his family entirely without any financial support. The only solution he could find was to join the ranks of the regime army. “My mother and siblings need me. My grandparents live in a small apartment and it’s difficult to stay with them. They gave me a gun, and I am near my family at the Qadam checkpoint. I bring in enough so that we do not have to depend on even our closest relatives.”
Since then, ʻIsam has been transferred to Jobar, the heart of the war there. Despite this, he receives all news with a smile on his face. “My grandparents are celebrating; they now live in Qadam, which we have liberated.”
His use of “liberated” raises many questions. His father, an FSA fighter, was killed while fighting the regime. The term reflects the transformation he has undergone. Whether this transformation is real, or is merely masking his true loyalties for him to maintain a living is still unclear.
This role reversal in the Syrian family has had benefits and drawbacks. “On one hand, it is useful to be exposed to the realities of the world early. On the other, you make sacrifices and so it stops you from living your life properly,” Germany-based Rim told SyriaUntold. “I no longer have free time. I run errands, go to my language course, come home and cook. I feel tired. I see my life passing by, and I no longer have any specific goals.”
Unable to graduate, Hala does not see any benefits. She feels as though her life has been shortened, especially with the passing of her father. “My father passed away on June 22, 2015. To this day, I am unable to come to terms with it. I didn’t lose one thing with his passing, I lost everything,” she explained to SyriaUntold.
Now, she is trying to start a new life in Lyon, France. She is learning French and studying screenwriting at a film school. She feels as though she is six years behind.
ʻIsam’s situation is even more difficult. Faced with the possibility of death every day, he has no other means of providing for his family and he will inevitably suffer from psychological trauma in the future.
Being forced to grow up before your time and the role reversal between parent and child are but some of the side effects of the Syrian war. Perhaps right now, society is unable to feel the weight of these burdens due to the humiliating daily existential struggle. However, they will surely have an impact on this generation and the next ones.
[Main image: An artwork by Tammam Azzam that portrays some bread loaves stained with blood in memory of those Syrians who were killed by regime air raids while queuing for bread. They were thus tragically prevented from 'winning' bread for their families (Tammam Azzam Facebook page/Fair use. All rights reserved to the author)].