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For Syrian Child Workers, a Shift Is Followed by Soccer

TRIPOLI, Lebanon / At a bustling petrol station in this northern coastal city, almost all of the workers are Syrian—some children. For refugee families that arrived from across the border with nothing, this is not child labor, but financial salvation.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

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At the end of an alley off Jadeed Street, a Syrian woman named Salma sits alongside Abu Omar—the local mukhtar (neighborhood leader), and Bilal, the founder of a popular soccer academy here. They watch as her son Mohammed and the local boys dart around the tiny backyard, which contains a small collapsible swimming pool and a laundry line that barely blows in the summer haze.

“I work from 9 in the morning to 11 at night! It’s not haram (forbidden)?!” asks 12-year-old Mohammed. Salma interjects, saying that her son gets to take a five hour play break each afternoon.

“When we arrived, the first thing I did was put the boys in school,” she says. But the transition proved difficult.

The Lebanese curriculum requires most subjects to be taught in a foreign language, and at the local school it was French. The Syrian arrivals are used to learning exclusively in Arabic, and so Mohammed and his brother were put into an evening session along with their fellow Syrians.

“Their classes didn’t start until 6 pm and went until late at night,” his mother says. The boys were also held back a year. “It was very hard, and eventually we couldn’t make it work.”

Now Mohammed works under the gaze of Hajj Bilal, the owner of the petrol station next door.

Asked whether teachers were patient with the Syrian students, Salma says yes. “Many of the teachers are Syrians themselves,” adds soccer coach Bilal, stressing that Salma’s boys did not drop out because of tension with their educators.

A tense security situation in several nearby districts and the family’s dire need for cash did not help their chances for staying in class.

“When we go back to Syria they will go back to school as normal,” Salma says.

But the boys are already getting used to their new surroundings. After all, they have been living in Lebanon for two years now since fleeing Hama, and later Damascus, with only the clothes on their backs.

“Mohammed speaks Trablousi [the dialect of Arabic prevalent in Tripoli] now,” says Bilal the soccer coach, watching nearby. (He also says Mohammed makes a great goalkeeper.)

Salma’s sons have also grown attached to their new Lebanese friends. Mohammed is spending this afternoon with his friend Bilal, 11, who just finished his school day. Mohammed says that he likes living in Lebanon. While the living conditions are humble, he is content and says he only wishes that he brought his soccer ball from Syria.

But he also wants to go home. “I saw five protests in our neighborhood before we left. They were beautiful,” he says.

For Salma, the horrors of the conflict are still in the back of her mind. Regime security forces detained her two brothers. They were released, but two of her relatives were taken from their homes in Damascus and killed.

“We won’t go back until Bashar falls,” she says.

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Asked what the scariest thing was back in Syria, Mohammed says quietly: “Arrests.”

The three adults sip Arabic coffee in the small backyard alongside Salma’s concrete house, its entrance shielded only by a white curtain. This gathering point is at the end of an alley, afforded some privacy by a low concrete wall and tree branches. A group of curious neighborhood boys come over to see what the interview is about, forming a line in front of the drying sheets to watch, but quickly get bored and run off.

“He’s Shia, he’s against us,” the mukhtar, Abu Omar, jokes about young Bilal.

<div> <div id=”:1az” tabindex=”0″ role=”button” data-tooltip=”Show trimmed content”> <img alt=”” src=”” />Jokes aside, the tension-rife neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabanneh – one inhabited by Alawites (an offshoot of Shiism) and the other by Sunnis – are nearby, a reminder of northern Lebanon’s increasingly violent sectarian clashes. </div> </div>

But today, “this is far from our minds. We don’t care about this stuff,” she says. “I love this city because it’s the closest to the life we lived back in Syria. The atmosphere is relaxed.”

She says there is a growing sense of solidarity among the area residents, many of whom are Syrian. “They are more than us now,” Abu Omar says.


Abu Omar makes his a living as a chauffeur, and Salma’s husband found work as a butcher, but the economy as a whole is on a perilous decline as the conflict next door has exacerbated local tensions. “Economic activity dropped 80 percent in Tripoli over the past two years,” Abu Omar says. While life in this particular neighborhood is safe, he admits that conditions are “very, very difficult” for his relatives in Bab al-Tabbaneh, where the frequency and violence of sectarian clashes is escalating.

“People want security; they want a state,” he says.  He blames the toxic and deadlocked political scene, and more specifically, Hezbollah, the strongest military force in the country. “They put their hand on everything, from Beirut to Tripoli – the whole country,” he says.

A sense of normal life slips through. As the adults speak outside the house, Salma’s youngest son Abdullah shyly comes over to get a glimpse.  At 10 years old, he also works, spending his days helping out at a nearby gift shop. He is wearing a black T-shirt with a picture on it of his favorite wrestler, the WWE’s John Cena. He is excited to hear I went to the same high school as his idol.

“We love John Cena,” Salma says excitedly, rising to her feet to dote on her son.

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