Ahamad* rises in the morning, eats breakfast, calls “Goodbye!” to his little sister and mother, and then leaves for a long work day.
By Felisa Needham
Ahamad is only 13, a Christian Syrian boy refugee living in another Middle East country. His father beat his mother, damaging her retina to the point of blindness, and then left the family. Since she can no longer work, Ahamad is the breadwinner—a crushing responsibility for a 13-year-old.
The Syrian conflict has broken and scattered many families. Almost 5 million people, including 2.3 million children, have fled their homes. Many families lost their jobs and resources, and children who were students are now wage earners, trying to provide for their families’ food and shelter.
It’s a risky life. Human trafficking abounds. Kidnappers sell boys as future hitmen, girls as slaves. Some traffickers specialize in harvesting the organs of young people for the benefit of wounded Islamic State soldiers. There is also the scary possibility of recruitment by the Islamic State.
Refugee boys who work in this country earn an average of $1 per day. They often suffer mistreatment: Ahamad was attacked by his boss’s nephew three times with scissors. “I learned to love and not hurt anyone,” Ahamad said. “I learned to love my enemies.”
Exploitative employers offer girls higher wages, hoping they can then pressure them into sex. One young lady said, “Young girls get [sexually] harassed here. They even get raped.”
Community in exile
Ahamad is part of a group of families who left everything behind in Syria, and ran towards an uncertain future. Within the last year or two they left Islam and are now following Jesus. Many of the children work out of necessity. Others work because school is not a good option.
When asked why she is not going to school, eleven-year-old Zinab said, “Schools are expensive, and the ones that are free make you learn the Qur’an. I don’t like to learn the Qur’an, for I became a Christian. I met Jesus. He is in my heart and I learned His love.”
Hassan said he wouldn’t go to school even if he didn’t have to work. “I’m a Christian and I love Jesus. I don’t want to learn the Qur’an.”
These young believers do not want to compromise their new, but fervent faith.
There is also the very real difficulty of the children’s sense of identity. In Islamic countries, identification cards display the religion the holder was born into, and it cannot be changed. If a person’s card says Muslim, they are Muslim in the eyes of the law and must study Islam in school. This can be extremely challenging for children and youth who once were Muslim but are now following Jesus. (Read one student’s story.)
One youth expresses the inner turmoil she experiences: “I am a believing Christian, but my ID says I am Muslim. When I go to school, I wear Islamic attire and learn Islamic religion. I am living in two characters. It is my wish to live like my other Christian brothers and sisters… I want to be free… I love you, Lord Jesus.”
A long road ahead
What will be the future of this at-risk generation?
Brother K, a missionary who serves this group of Syrian refugees, said, “These kids have lost their families, their hometown, their culture. They have lost everything. What do you expect from this generation? What do you expect from a girl who has been raped by men? When she is older she will become a prostitute.”
“At the same time, Muslim kids learn in schools how to read and write. They will become the engineers, doctors, and professionals, while the Christian Syrian children will grow up uneducated. What do you expect from these boys who have never been taught reading and writing? We need to teach these kids for the long term.”
“If things continue as they are,” he concludes, “these boys and girls will grow up downtrodden, with no way out.”
This community of Syrian refugees may be young in their Christian faith, but they are hungry to grow. They want to see their children grow, be discipled, and have a bright future. Though they have very limited resources, they greatly desire to give their children and youth a way forward amid a hostile environment, while remaining true to their new faith in Jesus Christ.
So the parents are trying to start a home-based school. They have already begun to pull the children together to go over the basics, but their hope and plan is to divide their 39 children into two groups to meet in believers’ homes three times a week. They will eat together and learn academic subjects, and they will also learn more about the Bible and what it means to follow Jesus. There is a great need for both an academic curriculum and a discipleship program.
The parents pray for school supplies such as books, notebooks, pencils, paper, crayons, and markers. They also pray that God would provide some Christian teachers of their ethnicity. God is at work in their lives.
Let’s help make a way in the desert for them.
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Felisa Needham is ANM’s lead child advocate.