Violence, poverty and displacement have affected millions of Syrian children, sometimes forcing them to become the sole providers for their households. In the besieged Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, many are forgoing their education and turning to the streets to help support their families.
As the situation in besieged Eastern Ghouta grows steadily worse, more and more children have become street hawkers to help their families make ends meet. Some are hawking sweets made by their mothers, while others sell single cigarettes. Other children walk for hours, collecting discarded plastic they can sell for loose change.
Unlike other areas in Syria that have experienced relative calm since the implementation last month of the shaky U.S.–Russia-backed truce deal, the Damascus suburb is still an active war zone. The district, on the outskirts of the capital, has been under government siege for the past four years, almost entirely cut off from international aid.
Since the beginning of the cessation of hostilities, the Syrian government has prevented humanitarian aid from reaching at least five Eastern Ghouta municipalities – Douma, Harasta, Arbin, Zamalka and Zabadani – according to a report from the U.N. Security Council.
Human Rights Watch said this week that Douma has been completely cut off from aid since 2013, when the government first began its siege of the city. Some 140,000 people still live there, according to local residents.
The grim economic situation has forced many of Ghouta’s children out of school and onto the streets, where a typical working day brings in about 300-900 Syrian pounds (between $1.30 and $4).
Save the Children recently estimated that some 7.5 million children are affected by the war in Syria, 2 million of whom are not attending school.
Omar, 10, has been selling goods on Ghouta’s streets for nearly four years now. “I left school right after my father was detained by the government in 2012,” he said.
Last August, when Syrian government warplanes attacked a busy marketplace in Douma, killing 82 people, Omar was selling sweets made by his mother. The boy had worked at the market every morning for several years, spreading out a small blanket on which he would place a tray full of sweets his mother had baked the previous night.
“I was a few minutes away when the plane came and dropped bombs on the market,” said Omar, who luckily escaped the bombing unharmed. “I never went back to the market after that day. Now I sell the sweets to children in front of a school near my house.”
Omar doesn’t go to school himself. He started working when he was six years old.
His mother bakes the sweets using flour, a bit of oil and some artificial sweeteners. Sugar is nearly impossible to come by in Ghouta these days – a kilogram (2.2lb) costs more than 4,000 pounds (about $18).
“Sometimes I feel sad when I see the children heading toward me to buy biscuits after school,” said Omar.
Abdulrahman, 11, spends his days selling cigarettes given to him by some of the merchants in Douma, Eastern Ghouta's largest city.
“I sell a single cigarette for 50 pounds [23 cents],” he said. “I usually manage to sell a lot because a full pack of cigarettes costs around 900 pounds [$4].”
Nobody has that kind of money these days.
Abdulrahman is in the fifth grade. He is one of the few lucky children in Ghouta who still manage to attend school, working an early-morning shift, from six to ten, before heading to classes.
“Sometimes I skip school, especially when I go to sell cigarettes outside Douma. I have to walk for a while, so I usually don’t get back in time for school,” he said.
Ordinarily, Abdulrahman manages to earn between 300 and 400 pounds (about $1.50) a day. He adds this to what his brother has earned and the two try to buy some food.
Ahmed, 12, wakes up at the break of dawn every day to meet his friends. They then roam the streets of Douma collecting plastic bags and cans to sell at collection points, where some besieged residents have begun the dangerous practice of extracting petroleum and other fuels from burnt plastic.
One kilogram of plastic sells for about 1,000 Syrian pounds ($4.50), according to Ahmed, who started working full time when the siege was first imposed. His mother, a widow, needed help with the household expenses.
“In winter, we sometimes burn plastic to stay warm. Instead of wasting paper to light the damp, green wood, we use plastic bags,” he said.
But when the shelling and airstrikes start back up, Ahmed and his friends get too scared to go out, often missing their chance to make any income that day.
“Around four months ago, one of my best friends was killed while collecting plastic,” said Ahmed. Since then, the group have been more careful about when and where they scavenge.
But with the absence of a truce in besieged Eastern Ghouta, and an increasingly dire economic situation, every day brings unforeseen risks.