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12-Hour Work Days Are Normal for Syria's Young Refugees

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Hussein’s hands are calloused, cracked and caked in dirt and car oil. On the back of Mahmoud’s weathered hand is a big scar from a recent burn. The Syrian boys, 8 and 12, work in a garage near their refugee home in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley — 12 hours a day, six days a week. They are both breadwinners for their families.

The pair help Ahmed, the garage manager, with menial and sometimes dangerous tasks. Their main job is to sand down battered and rusty cars for a client who wants to resell them.

From left, Syrian refugees Hussein, 8, and Mahmoud, 12, show the condition of hands after working in an auto garage where they sand down and weld old cars 12 hours a day.
From left, Syrian refugees Hussein, 8, and Mahmoud, 12, show the condition of hands after working in an auto garage where they sand down and weld old cars 12 hours a day.Yuki Tachibana / NBC News

Mahmoud said he and Hussein are always tired. “At 8 a.m., we start work. When the manager comes, we separate car parts. We take an hour off for lunch, and then we go back and weld some parts and repair others.”

Hussein said: “We finish at 8 at night. We then go home and wash and sleep.”

They earn $6 to $10 a week.

“We feel very happy when we’re paid," Hussein said. Mahmoud said the money is spent immediately to cover loans and rent.

Both boys are from Aleppo. Hussein said, “Every day we’d hear shooting and helicopters dropping barrel bombs.” He, his parents, his younger brothers and a sister fled across the border to Lebanon six months ago. Mahmoud and his family fled Syria more than three years ago.

“We saw fighting in our neighborhood and planes dropping bombs,” Mahmoud said.

Ahmed, the garage manager, is also a Syrian refugee. He said that he would prefer not to employ such young children, but that they need the work.

He said: “These children have to earn money to help their families. Life in Lebanon is very expensive. It’s very upsetting and exhausting for a child. They have been robbed of their childhood.”

Across the street from the garage, there is a small school for refugee children, but neither of the boys has time to attend. They don’t know how to read or write.

Ahmed said, “Of course I wish they didn’t have to work at all. I want them to go to school. These children don’t know how to count!”

Mahmoud wants to be a doctor, Hussein an engineer. They say they both want to go to school. But for now, they have no choice.

From left, Syrian refugees Mahmoud, 12, and Hussein, 8, work in an auto garage sanding down and welding old cars 12 hours a day in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
From left, Syrian refugees Mahmoud, 12, and Hussein, 8, work in an auto garage sanding down and welding old cars 12 hours a day in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.Yuki Tachibana / NBC News

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