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Shattered lives

On the run from war, Syrian girls labor in Turkey’s notorious garment industry

By Christina Asquith and Nihal Kayali on March 21, 2016

In her hometown of Aleppo, Loury was a budding musical prodigy. Born to a Syrian folk dancer from Raqqua and a musician, she learned at a young age to nestle her chin onto the violin’s lower bout, draw the bow across its strings, and share her country’s heritage through music.

But these days, Loury’s fingers know only the stitch of a cheap T-shirt. Since age 11, when government shelling drove her family from their home, Loury has worked a series of low-wage and illegal jobs, as her family migrated across the region.

Her music school is shuttered, her teachers scattered across Europe, her violin surrounded by rubble in a neighbor’s basement. She hasn’t played in four years. “My dream is to finish my studies, but our financial situation doesn’t allow me,” says Loury, sitting in the cramped Istanbul apartment the family shares with another Syrian refugee family. “When I see students going to school, I get upset. I especially get mad for my brother because he’s 13 and barely got to study at all.”

Loury and dad
Loury, 15, at work with her father, in a garment workshop in Turkey. (Fuller Project)

Amidst the deafening clatter of sewing machines and the dust of thousands of pieces of cotton, Loury folds and stacks T-shirts in a basement for 10 hours a day. She earns less than a dollar an hour, and has no benefits or protections. Her brother sweeps the floor at a nearby barbershop, earning only tips.

The Syrian revolution marked its fifth anniversary this month, reminding many that hundreds of thousands of children like Loury are losing their childhood to war. Among the 2 million refugees in Turkey, some families have managed to enroll their children in school. But most families have made the desperate financial decision to put their children to work.

In 2014, the Turkish government gave Syrian refugees permission to attend Turkish schools, and later funded some Arabic-speaking schools as well. Two years later however, government statistics indicate only a small minority have enrolled.

Boys make up the majority of the estimated 400,000 Syrian children out of school in Turkey, but girls are also working in jobs, researchers say, even though their dangers are greater. Girls risk sexual harassment, abuse and rape, with families taking the blame for risking their daughter’s honor by allowing the girls out of the house. For that reason, girls are often placed in employment that takes place out of the public eye. “There are girls working in textile workshops where they never see the light of day,” said Dr. Ayhan Kaya, a professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, who recently did a study of refugee children working in Turkey. “Girls are exposed to sexual harassment and violence in these workshops and because their Turkish is limited they have limited knowledge of their legal rights.”

Loury crying
Loury, in tears as she describes her family’s flight from their Aleppo home. (Fuller Project)

The Turkish garment industry is already notorious for child labor — up to a million children were estimated to be working in 2011, a quarter of them girls. The minimum wage is 1,300 Turkish lira ($454) per month. Loury earns 900tl — more than many other girls interviewed, who reported earning half that, or often not being paid at all. For them, there is no recourse.

Along with China, Cambodia and Bangladesh, Turkey is one of the top manufacturers of cheap clothing bound for Western markets. Earlier this year, several major European and U.S. retailers, including H&M and NEXT, acknowledged Syrian refugee children were working in their factories, and promised to address the problem. However most retailers refused to respond to inquiries, and a Human Rights Watch report described child labor in Turkey as “rampant”.

Down a dozen steps, inside Loury’s factory, tables are covered with pieces of fabric piled up to the ceiling. Her father works near by. His task, attaching labels onto the clothes, requires the most skill.

Workers sit in an assembly line of sewing machines against the walls, stitching together the front and back, and then the sleeves, the hem and the collar. One worker wears a mask to protect him from the dust; most look to be in their early 20s. Music blares from a speaker, and cigarette smoke fills the room. In the corner there is a tea station, and the owner dispatches Loury to make several glass cups of strong Turkish tea upon our arrival.

Loury violin
Loury makes tea for her interviewers, and remembers her life in Syria. (Fuller Project)

The factory owner, a Turkish Kurd who declines to be named, says he himself is a refugee fleeing civil war between Turkish government and the Kurdish resistance fighters in Eastern Turkey. He believes he is helping Loury and her family. “Education is important but it’s not always possible. My kids have to work too,” he says, waving at three of his daughters sitting at sewing machines.

Loury’s mom wants her to go to school and when they first arrived, they considered it. They looked at Turkish schools, some schools in Arabic, and even tried to send Loury to a music conservatory. But in the end, the family couldn’t afford to live without Loury’s salary, small as it is.

Loury continues her learning as she can — she practices English by reading the glittery t-shirt slogans like “The Happiness of Your Life” and “Take a Chance.” She also learns Turkish from the other girls in the factory and, in the evenings, she writes and reads Facebook posts.

“I remember the last time I played the violin. I was in my house, where I have beautiful memories. That was four years ago, and I haven’t held a violin since,” Loury recalls. “Sometimes I feel like I’m still there, in that amazing place, and I’m still playing.”

Christina Asquith is founder of The Fuller Project for International Reporting. She is also author of Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family and Survival in the New IraqNihal Kayali is a fellow at The Fuller Project for International Reporting. Reporting for this article was supported by The Malala Fund.


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