On the Run From War, Syria’s Children Grow Up Fast – By Farnaz Fassihi
BEIRUT—Back home in Syria, Omar al-Kurdi was always the good kid. He got top grades. He helped his disabled father manage a small shop selling cigarettes and snacks. He hung laundry for his mother.
Now, as a refugee in Lebanon, Omar is again the good kid, this time as the family’s breadwinner, working 14 hours a day in a vegetable shop. His salary of $15 a day pays for rent and food.
« At the beginning, I got tired of the responsibilities, » he said, walking to work shortly after dawn on a cool fall morning. « I was comfortable in Syria. Here I have to worry all the time. But I’m used to it now, what choice do I have? »
As he does every day, Omar woke up quietly while the sky was still dark and his parents and six siblings, ages 2 to 18, slept in a cluster of thin mattresses spread on the floor of the family’s one-room apartment. The three youngest children share a spot on their mother’s single mattress.
Omar tiptoed to a small storage room and flicked on a light. He sifted though the bottom shelf of a cupboard that held his wardrobe: three T-shirts, a sweater, two pairs of socks and two pairs of pants. He dressed and combed his hair.
In the kitchen, Omar found a cup of rich-scented Arabic coffee left on the counter by his mother, who awoke for morning prayer. The scrawny 17-year-old boy had no time or budget for breakfast.
A pickup truck delivering the day’s produce waited for Omar at the curb near the vegetable shop. He climbed up and began unloading. His skinny arms lifted boxes of eggplants and bananas. He dragged heavy sacks of potatoes and onions, sliding them off the truck to the pavement.
Omar sorted through the shop’s stock of herbs and vegetables. His fingers expertly separated out the rotten pieces. He took out the trash, swept the floor and, in less than an hour, opened the shop, ready for business.
« Omar is a hard worker and more important he is very polite, » said Joseph Nakhle, the shop owner. « That’s the reason I’ve kept him around. »
Omar didn’t say that in Syria his grades were good enough for a shot at college, or that when he finished ninth grade—his last formal schooling—pursuing a degree in physical therapy seemed a plausible goal. His father’s legs were partially paralyzed from a childhood disease, and Omar became interested in physical therapy on trips to his father’s doctor.
But circumstance, Omar said, took him from Syria to the vegetable shop in Beirut’s working-class neighborhood of Borj Hamoud. « Before the war, I was a happy kid, » he said, hanging a bunch of bananas on a hook.
Omar aimed to look cheerful but tough. He liked projecting a demeanor that suggested he was game for hard work without complaint. Toughness, he thought, ensured job security in a labor market filled with desperate Syrian refugees, adults and children.
Syrians stopped by the vegetable shop every day to ask for work; nearly all of them, Omar’s boss said, boys younger than 17.
« I already have one Syrian, » Mr. Nakhle would say, pointing to Omar. « Go someplace else. »
Since he started working at the shop a year ago, Omar determined that Mr. Nakhle, a burly middle-aged Christian, had no tolerance for anxiety or weakness, either physical or mental.
Omar also learned that the ladies in the predominately Armenian Christian neighborhood, who occasionally tipped Omar a few cents for carrying their grocery bags home, had tired of the woes of Syrian refugees.
So Omar smiled often, greeted customers politely and only spoke to answer questions. Occasionally, a customer asked about his family, and he gave the same short reply: « Hamdullelah, » Thank you, God.
Privately, Omar’s optimism was waning. He was often hungry and tired. He worked six days a week from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and a half day on Sundays, earning about $400 a month. He got an hour for lunch, which he usually spent at home, resting. Omar wasn’t allowed to sit at work. The shop’s single chair was behind the cash register.
Omar worried about making ends meet. Winter was coming and his family needed blankets and a carpet for the bare tile floor. « My salary comes from this hand and goes out the other, » he said.
New Family Authority
Eid al-Adha, one of the Islamic calendar’s major holidays, was in October, and Omar’s mother, Raghda al-Kurdi, searched the pocket of her dress for a sweet to give her three youngest kids.
The 38-year-old mother pulled out a stick of chewing gum that she divided into three pieces and placed on the tiny open palms of Nour and Saad, the 5-year-old twins, and 2-year-old Majed.
« Chew it slowly for the sweet taste to last longer, » she said in a soft voice.
The home’s only decoration this year was a strip of bright pink tinsel taped to the bottom of a TV the family had salvaged. Ms. al-Kurdi found the tinsel on the sidewalk, perhaps dropped from a holiday shopping bag.
The children played with a blue plastic ball on the floor. When an Arabic music video aired on TV, Majed stood and swayed his arms. Everyone laughed.
« It’s a good thing he is too young to have memories of home. He is not sad like the rest of us, » said Omar’s father, Abdel Nasser al-Kurdi. The 42-year-old man sat on the sofa, his crutches next to him. He suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure and is often too tired to leave the house.
At first, Lebanon was a welcome escape for Omar’s parents. Then, in a role reversal, they became dependent on their son. Mr. al-Kurdi has had to adjust to sharing authority with Omar.
Omar was the one who asked 10-year-old Hamoudi, the only sibling in school, about his studies; he interrogated his 14-year-old brother Ahmad about looking for work and checked on his 18-year-old sister, Khadija.
Ms. al-Kurdi, long accustomed to relying on her husband, now takes the list of family needs directly to Omar.
« We weren’t poor in Syria. I could provide for my family. We aren’t used to this, » said Mr. al-Kurdi, a former shopkeeper, tears in his eyes.
« I never saw him cry so much in 20 years of marriage, » she said, handing him a tissue.
When the couple married, Mr. al-Kurdi vowed to care for his family despite his disability. They had a two-bedroom apartment in the small town of Kfar Batna, in the al-Ghouta district around Damascus. It had a big kitchen and a bathroom with a shower. Farms and olive groves surrounded their building.
Mr. al-Kurdi had managed a stall in a market next door. Like most working-class Syrian families, they relied on social services from the government, including free health care and education, as well as discounted food and fuel.
Back home, the parents said, their children had colorful toys and books. Their clothes filled closets and were organized by season. If Mr. al-Kurdi made extra money at his shop, he would take his family to the souks of Damascus for kebabs.
Omar grew up thinking life was simple as long as you didn’t get involved in politics. His grandfather, father and uncles had anchored their lives to hard work, moderate religious beliefs and strong family values.
Omar saved three weekends’ worth of tips, about $9, to celebrate the holiday with a haircut. He walked quickly to the barbershop, avoiding a glance at store windows filled with things he wished he could buy.
The barber, a talkative Syrian, cracked jokes and treated Omar to a free shave. « We Syrians have to look out for each other, » the barber said as he applied shaving cream to Omar’s smooth, childlike face.
« Nobody looks out for us here, » Omar said from the barber’s chair. « The Lebanese want to make money from us. Our landlord wants to raise the rent. My boss throws vegetables away but doesn’t give me a bag of cucumbers. »
Back home, in the summer of 2012, Omar’s parents worried constantly their children would be killed by shrapnel or snipers. They feared that Omar would be recruited by rebels or drafted by the army.
« Please don’t talk to the fighters. Keep your head down, » Ms. al-Kurdi would tell her son when he left the house.
« Don’t worry, I don’t want to touch a gun, » Omar would reply.
At first, the family watched peaceful protests from their balcony and supported the revolution. Like most Sunnis, they saw President Bashar al-Assad as an oppressor and thought Syria would be better without him.
But slowly, violent conflict engulfed the country, and fear replaced hope. The family saw rebel groups form, then divide and disintegrate. Islamist and foreign fighters arrived and recruited boys as young as 12 years old.
The family lived in the restive suburbs around Damascus, and their town turned into a battleground. Schools closed when local roads and alleys became too dangerous to walk. Mr. al-Kurdi closed his stall. Most state-funded services were suspended.
During one round of shelling, Nour, then 3 years old, screamed for 15 minutes. Her twin brother silently curled up in a corner.
« We have to leave, » Ms. al-Kurdi told her husband that night.
« How will we leave? » he said. « We don’t have a car. There are no taxis or buses here. »
Omar volunteered that he had a friend with a pickup: « He could give us a ride to Ain Tarma. »
Ms. al-Kurdi took only a diaper bag. They were the last people to leave their building. At every stop on the family’s journey, Omar found work as a peddler, busboy and cleaner. They traveled to the towns of Ain Tarma, Aqraba and Adra. The war followed them.
After three months, Omar’s father asked him, « Do you want to go to Beirut and look for a job? We can follow you once you are settled. »
« If you think I should go, » Omar said, « I will go. »
He boarded a minibus with $10, a small plastic bag with an extra set of pants, a shirt, socks, and the address of a cousin working in Borj Hamoud. Eight hours later, he showed up at his cousin’s room, which he shared with three other Syrian workers.
They let him sleep on a blanket in a corner and shared their one meal of the day—mostly vegetables. He could repay them when he got a job.
For three weeks, Omar searched. « I went from shop to shop asking for work. Sometimes they’d make fun of me and say you are too young to work, » said Omar, whose small size makes him look several years younger.
He finally got a job at a scrap metal plant, where he worked 10 hours a day for two months, earning $6 a day. When Omar found the job at the vegetable shop, he borrowed his cousin’s cellphone to tell his parents the good news.
« Rent a room, » his father told him. « We want to join you. We can’t take it here anymore. »
Out of School
Omar’s family arrived in Beirut in February. They rented a room in a building filled mostly with refugees. They had no kitchen and shared a bathroom.
After a month, Omar saw the neighborhood’s unofficial leasing agent to find a bigger space. The man placed refugees with landlords who wanted proof of income and a reference. He charged Omar $100 and found the family their one-room apartment.
The room was at street level, making it easier for Omar’s father, and it was close to the vegetable shop. The bathroom had no shower or faucet. The family washed with water in buckets, standing between the toilet and a moldy wall.
Women who shopped at Omar’s store donated plates, cups, pots and pans. Omar hunted for abandoned furniture. One day he saw a man hauling away two sofas with a purple leopard-skin pattern and snagged them for the apartment.
By the standards of many refugees, Omar’s family is a success, with a roof, a steady income and all of them still alive.
They registered with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and now receive monthly food vouchers for each one of the family. The vouchers pay for about one meal a day.
The first time Ms. al-Kurdi shopped with her vouchers, she filled a basket with rice, beans and cooking oil at a local supermarket. The cashier turned her away. The quota for refugees had finished, she was told.
The al-Kurdi children had missed two years of school, but the family couldn’t afford to send them. In July, Alexis Hurd-Shires, a volunteer from a Christian Adventist church in Oregon who has befriended the family, helped get Hamoudi, 10, into a school the church set up. The new refugee school, called the Adventists Learning Center, had sun-filled classrooms, pink walls and child-size tables and chairs. It offered art classes with crayons and watercolors, and music lessons. There was a rooftop playground with donated toys.
« Hamoudi is the happiest of my brothers and sisters because of this school, » Omar said. « The little ones get bored and sad sitting at home all day. It makes me wish I could be his age and go and play and laugh and not have to worry. »
‘My Favorite Place in All of Lebanon’
What Omar missed most were his friends. Then, miraculously, one surfaced.
Mahmoud, 17, was scouting Omar’s neighborhood on behalf of a vegetable wholesaler looking for new customers. Omar overheard a Syrian accent in his shop and looked up. He saw his old friend talking to the boss.
Mahmoud and his twin brother, Ahmad, had come to Lebanon without their family and worked at Beirut’s main produce market. (They asked that only their first names be used.)
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Omar trekked crosstown to visit his friends. « This is my favorite place in all of Lebanon, » he said, climbing three flights of rickety iron stairs. At the top, was a small room facing a garbage dump in front and the blue Mediterranean in back.
« Ahlan, Marhaba, » greeted Mahmoud, throwing his arms around Omar. « Are you ready to get beat today? » he said, referring to the card game they played for points.
Another friend, Abed, who fled Syria, was also there. He had lived near Zamalka, one of the areas hit by chemical weapons that killed more than 1,000 civilians in August.
Omar sat cross-legged on one of the three mattresses along the wall. Ahmad poured tea into miniature glass cups. « What are you making for lunch today? » Omar said.
« Green beans and olive oil, » Mahmoud said. « Last week we missed you because I made chicken. »
« What? How come when I’m here you never eat meat? I haven’t had chicken in months, » Omar said.
Ahmad reached under the mattress for a deck of cards, a notebook and a pen. The boys played cards and smoked Winston Lights, a habit Omar hides from his parents. They dumped ashes in an ornate, handmade brass ashtray the twins’ mother brought on her last visit.
« I told my mother bring me back a souvenir from Syria that tourists usually buy and she brought this, » Ahmad said.
As the teenagers joked and reminisced, Ahmad, the only one with a cellphone, played a music video that showed images of the Syrian countryside. Omar held the phone on his lap and a fleeting look of grief skipped across his face. He passed the phone.
« I miss you my country, » the lyrics went. « I miss to kiss my mom’s hand…My country, you are my breath. »
After the song ended, Omar said, « It might be years before we go back. »
« What will be left of it? » Ahmad said.
« Before it was not so good, but now it’s not good, either, » Omar said. « Assad was an oppressor and he has made everything worse by not stepping down. But the rebels did no service for Sunnis, either. »
« If Assad stays now he will be more oppressive, » Abed said. « He will control us and punish us. »
Mahmoud sprang up to close the window and the door. He hushed Omar and Abed. The neighborhood is predominantly Shiite, the sect in Lebanon that mostly supports Syria’s regime. Mahmoud feared trouble from neighbors.
When the boys rode a bus or shared a taxi, they didn’t speak, afraid to reveal their accent. Seemingly ordinary questions such as « What part of Syria are you from? » could categorize them on one side of the conflict or the other.
They played cards in silence for a few minutes, scribbling scores and sipping the sugary tea. Omar asked about a mutual friend, Hejaz, who had stayed with them in Beirut over the summer but returned to Syria.
« If he comes back, he could tell us who is alive and who is dead, » Ahmad said.
Hejaz had arrived with hands and legs burned in a phosphate chemical attack. He carried mental scars, too. Hejaz sometimes picked up a cup of tea during a card game and smashed it against the wall. He slept with the kitchen knife under his pillow and had pulled it once on Omar.
Omar also endured trauma, though he seldom spoke of it. Images haunted him: the disfigured corpse he saw in a garbage bin; bloated bodies of small children; the body of a friend’s teenage sister, killed by shrapnel.
At the beginning of last summer, Omar’s best friend was killed in a rocket attack. Omar had shared his secrets with him, like his crush on a chubby girl named Roghaya.
« At first everyone hid the news from me but my mother eventually told me, » Omar said. « I cried a lot. »
He ripped a page from the notebook and sketched the attack in red ink. He drew a line of shops, a road, cars and a vehicle in the distance launching rocket-propelled grenades. Then he drew a boy trying to run. « See, he had no place to hide, » Omar said, « no place at all. »
Thoughts of Turkey
One afternoon in October, Omar came home for lunch looking haggard. He dropped a few bags of greens from the shop. His baby brother ran to him. Omar picked him up and tickled his belly.
« You look like you didn’t sleep last night, » his mother said.
Omar walked to the window and lifted the curtain to look out at the street. He showed his little brother the passing cars. Mr. al-Kurdi gestured for Omar to sit. He had news.
« We talked to your uncle in Turkey this morning, » Mr. al-Kurdi said. « He thinks we should move there. »
Omar protested. « What do I do for a living? » he said. « I have a job here. »
Ms. al-Kurdi backed her husband. « Your uncle said there are lots of jobs in Turkey, » she said. « And rent is only $150. »
His father pressed the idea. « Imagine, Omar, $150, » he said. « That would leave us with extra cash. And we won’t be alone. We will have your uncle there. »
Omar rubbed his eyes and looked annoyed.
In the past week, the landlord had issued an eviction order. He lived on the top floor and had complained the children made too much noise.
All week, Omar spent lunch breaks looking for apartments. Three days earlier, he had taken his mother to see one and she complained the rooms didn’t have doors. Omar lost his temper. « What do you want from me? » he said. « I’m done, you go look for a place yourself. »
The next day his mother apologized and said they should take the apartment. When Omar called, it was already taken.
To Omar, Lebanon was no great land of opportunity. But he couldn’t imagine resettling his family in a country where he didn’t speak the language.
« If we go to Turkey we have to start all over again, » Omar said. « I have to start all over again. We have stuff now. I have a job. How would we even get to Turkey? »
« We could go through Syria, » his father said.
« There is no safe passage through Syria, it’s too risky, » Omar replied.
« Why don’t you try to call your cousin and find out a little more? » his mother said.
« Fine, I’ll call, whatever gives you comfort, » Omar said.
The family sat silent for a few minutes. Omar thought of the months of hardship that had finally delivered his family here, and what might lay ahead.
A midday TV news broadcast from Syria showed grainy images of bombed-out buildings. Men holding guns skipped across the screen. No one bothered to turn up the sound. It looked like a silent horror movie.
Omar finally stood. His lunch break was over. « Will you really think about Turkey? » his mother asked. Omar nodded. He clung to the idea he could ease his family’s pain.
« This is what God wanted for me, » Omar said, as he walked to work, « to grow up very fast. »
Write to Farnaz Fassihi at email@example.com