'Weight Of The World' On Syrian Boy's Shoulders

Syrian teenager Omar al-Kurdi had to forfeit his schooling and childhood to become his refugee family's breadwinner. Journalist Farnaz Fassihi tells host Michel Martin more about her profile of the teenager's life in Beirut, Lebanon.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, the good news in many cities is that the murder rate is at historic lows, but the bad news is that many of those murders remain unsolved. We'll take a look at New York City, where a newspaper's close look at the issue is raising some uncomfortable questions about race and geography. But first, we return to a major international story that's also provoking some uncomfortable questions for world powers - the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Since the Civil War began, more than 2 million people have fled the country. Several thousand refugees have gone to Europe, a handful to the U.S., but the majority have crossed borders into neighboring countries in the Middle East. Now many of those people have ended up in refugee camps, but others have dispersed into towns and cities. And that's where we pick up the story. Farnaz Fassihi wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal last week about one family of Syrian refugees in Lebanon whose survival now depends upon the labor of one teenage boy. Farnaz Fassihi is with us now from Beirut. Farnaz, thanks so much for joining us.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Farnaz, your story tells about the circumstances of a lot of refugees' families, but focusing on one in particular. This is a young man, Omar al-Kurdi, who has become the de facto head of the family. What was it about him and his family that drew you to them and to their story?

FASSIHI: I think what it was was the circumstances. I mean, really the story of Omar is the story of Syrian refugee children. There are about 3 million of them - 2.2 million children displaced inside Syria and about 1.1 million outside of Syria. What drew me to him was that he was very good at explaining how he felt, about telling me about his life in Syria, and, of course, the family's willingness to allow their kid to be interviewed and followed.

I spent about two weeks embedding myself with the family. I didn't sleep at their house because there was no space. But I was with them all day, and I would follow them around. And I followed Omar around when he went to work, when he went to get a haircut, when he went to look for a new apartment for his family. So I really just tried to be a fly on the wall.

MARTIN: And these were really long days. I mean, one of the points that you make in this piece is that Omar - what, he was 17 at the time - but he has the life that I think would be familiar to many people in our grandparents' time, right, where kids just worked all day long. I mean, he works in a small shop. He works 14-hour days...

FASSIHI: Right.

MARTIN: ...Six and a half days a week.

FASSIHI: Right.

MARTIN: You know, he is the de facto head of the household. All major decisions are discussed with him, right?

FASSIHI: Right.

MARTIN: Which is very different from the way, though, his life was back in Syria. Correct?

FASSIHI: That was the striking thing was that, you know, you hear a lot about Syrian refugees and they're living in tents. And they have miserable lives. And, you know, one thing that people tend to forget is that many of these people had regular lives. They had middle-class to working-class lives. The Syrian state was a subsidized kind of a social system. So even with reasonable - like a small salary, because education and health care was subsidized and food was subsidized, the families could live a decent life. They could send their kids to school. The kids didn't have to work. They could offer to buy them clothes and food. And that's all been upended because they've been displaced. And now the kids are working. I mean, pretty much every single family that I interviewed was partially or completely supported by children in the family working.

MARTIN: And in the case of this family, their situation is complicated by the fact that both parents are in Lebanon with him. I mean, and some of these children came alone. I mean, that is a point that you make in your piece is that some of these children came without a benefit of family members or parents to guide them. He does have his family with him. But his father is partially disabled. So he really has not had any ability to find work himself. So he's not physically strong enough to find work...

FASSIHI: Right. Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Under the current circumstances. Yeah.

FASSIHI: The U.N. says that they have about 4,000 documented cases of underage children who have crossed an international border from Syria alone without an adult or a parent. And there are a lot of undocumented cases of course of children who do that, too. Omar first came to Lebanon at the age of 16 alone. And he was here for about four months by himself looking for a job and, you know, found a job and living in a small room with other refugees until his parents joined him. And he - as you mentioned, he's become, like, the de facto head of household. And with that comes a lot of interesting family dynamics that shift. And this is something that I was able to observe because I spent so much time with the family. You know, it's not easy for parents to share authority with their child, to have the child suddenly support them financially.

And with that kind of comes a level of authority from Omar. You know, you could see that the dynamics had changed. He felt like he could supervise his younger siblings and tell them what to do. You know, his mother hints that the couples' relationship had changed. Instead of the mother telling her husband what she needed for the household, she was going to her young son. So the father was feeling like he wasn't able to support his family anymore. So a lot of different psychological things come into play when family dynamics shift in such dramatic ways.

MARTIN: Well, that's one of the points that you make. For example, the landlord of the apartment where they were living complained that the children were making too much noise, and he wanted them to move. It was Omar who goes out on his lunch hour to look for another apartment.

FASSIHI: Exactly.

MARTIN: When there were rumors of better opportunities in Turkey, it is the 17-year-old who is kind of the go-to person to make the decision. What effect do you think this is having on him and on the rest of his family? I mean, what effect do you think it's having on this 17-year-old to have so much responsibility?

FASSIHI: You really felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. I mean, he worked very, very hard. This is a kid who used to be a happy kid. He used to be in high school. He played soccer. He used to play video games with his friends. And suddenly, here he was working these long shifts, and the whole family responsibility was on his shoulders. And you just felt like his face was grief stricken.

And, you know, you could feel that he had a lot of anxiety and he had a lot on his mind. And he often said that he missed being a kid and that he had been forced into adulthood kind of overnight. And there were times he would lose his patience with his family or that he would feel that he's trying to hold it together. And he'd tried to do this at his job, too. I mean, he really tried not to complain about the long hours, not to complain about the fact that there was no chair for him to sit all day from 7 a.m. 'til 9 p.m. because he was afraid that if he complains, the boss might kick him out and hire the long line of other Syrian kids who came every day looking for work.

MARTIN: Is that true, though? I mean, that speaks to another issue in the piece which is that - what are they experiencing right now in Lebanon? Which was the focus of your reporting.

FASSIHI: They're experiencing...

MARTIN: I mean, presumably...

FASSIHI: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...There are other situations, but just what you saw.

FASSIHI: I saw that they're experiencing isolation. They are experiencing anxiety and fear. They feel very vulnerable here. Lebanon is not politically stable. It is a divided country in terms of support and opposition to the Syrian regime. Omar has half a day off a week, and he takes several taxis and buses to come and see a couple of his friends. And during these taxi rides, he tries not to speak because he's afraid that people might detect his Syrian accent. So this is a lot of anxiety for a kid. You know, he's afraid somebody will ask him a question, and then they'll say, where are you from in Syria? And then if he says where he's from, they would know, OK, if he's a Sunni, then he's opposed to the Syrian regime. If he's an Alawite, then he supports it.

And, you know, the constantly being afraid of losing your job or not having enough money to support the family or being discriminated against because you're not on the right side of politics. So you do feel that they have that vulnerability. And also, there's, you know, not a whole lot of international help coming. I mean, when I talked to aid workers, when I talked to UNICEF, when I talked to local NGOs, they all said that the problem is so enormous that the funding does not match the problem that they have on the ground. And that they really need...

MARTIN: Well, how about just people - just regular people in Beirut, which is where you are at present? I mean, how are just - just the customers who come into the shop where Omar works, the neighbors? How do they feel about all these folks here?

FASSIHI: Most of the Lebanese don't really want the refugees here, truth be told, because they have had this experience when the Palestinian refugees came in the '40s. And they set up refugee camps, and to this day they haven't left. And they have created security problems. They've created infrastructure problems. And now, you know, Lebanon has experienced almost a 30 percent population increase in a period of two years.

Can you imagine those numbers? Even if the U.S., which is a modern, you know, developed country, has that kind of population increase, the infrastructure would be stretched. So they feel like the jobs are going to the Syrians because they're cheaper labor. They're afraid that these people are never going to go back to their country because who knows when Syria will stabilize. They also fear that they're going to have security problems because of the presence of the Syrians. So it's not a very welcoming environment.

MARTIN: And one of the things you point out in the piece is that you focused on one family, but this is not the only family. I mean, in November, the United Nations issued a warning that the conflict in Syria was creating, in essence, a generation of damaged children. That you encountered more than a million children - 1.1 million. Half the total number of Syrian refugees are children. And the U.N. said that the concern here is that this is a whole generation of people who will have a very difficult time returning to a normal life either because of the psychological trauma, missed schooling. That they're, in essence, at risk of becoming kind of permanent casualties. And I wonder is - is there any organized effort to kind of address this big problem in a big way?

FASSIHI: No. I mean, I think, you know, the biggest organization that's trying to tackle this is the United Nations Higher Refugee and also UNICEF, dealing with children. But you don't really see the big fundings coming to the Syrian refugees the way that they came, for example, after the Haiti earthquake or other natural disasters. You know, and this is an ongoing problem. There are hundreds of thousands of children who have been out of school for two years. And it's hard for them to catch up. So that means that they're going to probably not finish their studies, and that creates a generation of kind of unskilled or not appropriately educated children. There's a lot of problems. I mean, they're engaged in child labor. I should also point out that the U.N. says that there hasn't been this kind of forced migration of people since the World War II. So Syria's refugee problem is, in magnitude, it's, you know, unprecedented.

MARTIN: At the end of your story, Omar's family were debating whether to move again and go to Turkey because an uncle was there. And they had heard they might be able to - that the rent was less and that the opportunities were greater. And Omar was resisting because he was thinking, gosh, you know, I've worked so hard just to get this little bit we have here. And then, obviously, he doesn't speak Turkish. So he was thinking again about having to start, you know, all over. Do you have any idea what happened or where they are now or how things are with them?

FASSIHI: They're still in Lebanon because the family has no money to fly to Turkey, which is the safest way to get there. They don't even have passports to get to Turkey, which would require all of them to go back to Syria and negotiate their way through some of the areas that are, you know, there's fighting going on. So they're not thinking about doing that right now. And they're staying put.

MARTIN: Well, keep us posted if you would. Farnaz Fassihi reporters for The Wall Street Journal. She spoke with us from Beirut, Lebanon. Farnaz, thank you.

FASSIHI: Thank you so much, Michel, for having me.

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