For Afghan refugees, childhood is labor

Children with work considered fortunate

War On Terrorism

October 21, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan - When the first fingers of sunlight reach over the jagged mountains that surround this desert city, Nissar Ahmad arrives at a tiny bakeshop to begin another day of work. He lights a fire in the giant brick oven. He cleans the baking trays. He squats beside the fire, using a long iron rod to pull the trays of biscuits from the oven.

Under the desert sun, the little shop heats up like a furnace. Nissar will work 12 hours before the day is over. For six days of work, he will earn 72 cents, enough to buy a liter of mineral water here.

Nissar is 7 years old.

He is also an Afghan refugee. And like many of the refugee children in this city near the Afghanistan border, he doesn't attend school. He can't read or write, add or subtract. But he has learned the lesson that life doesn't get any easier once you cross the border into Pakistan.

Pakistan is home to about 2 million Afghan refugees who have fled famine, drought and two decades of war. Now they are fleeing the U.S.-led bombing campaign at a rate of about 2,000 people per day. The border is officially closed, so families are paying bribes to be smuggled across. But the life that awaits them is nearly as tough as the world they left behind.

Here, many refugee families are so poor that they must send their children to work. Afghan children who would not be old enough for kindergarten in the United States labor longer hours than most adults do. Children repair automobiles, weave carpets, make bricks, clean houses, search for scrap metal. Most earn a pittance for their labor.

"There's nothing to eat in our house, so my father decided I should go to work," says Nissar, dressed in a round Pashtun cap and the traditional Pakistani baggy pants and long shirt. He stands no taller than the bakery's countertop.

Nissar's family moved to Pakistan six years ago. His father peddles snacks from a pushcart, but he doesn't earn enough money to feed the family. So Nissar and his five older brothers found jobs.

Nissar's boss, Naseer Ahmad, no relation, is also an Afghan refugee. He employs two other children, a 13- and a 14-year-old. "The families don't have a choice," he explains. "They have to eat. They have to pay the rent. All of them are working because they are poor."

A new United Nations report finds that an increasing number of Afghan boys living in Afghanistan and as refugees in Pakistan and Iran are forced to work. Pakistan's carpet industry, for instance, has started using child workers as bonded laborers.

The children are separated from their families in Afghanistan and must fulfill one-year contracts as carpet weavers. In return, the families receive wheat and cash, the report says.

The main force driving the number of child laborers is poverty. But the Taliban regime is also to blame. The Taliban's Islamic laws have placed restrictions on women's employment, forcing some of them to quit their jobs. To make up the lost income, the children are asked to find work.

In the Afghan capital of Kabul, as many as 50,000 children are working, nearly double the number five years ago, according to the United Nations. These trends have spilled over the border into Pakistan. In Quetta, a city 80 miles from the Afghanistan border and home to more than 500,000 Afghan refugees, children perform nearly every type of task imaginable.

It is not known how many child laborers there are in Quetta, but no one appears to be bothered by the practice. Employers say there are child labor laws, but the laws are never enforced. Afghan adult refugees in Pakistan are often exploited, barely earning a living wage for performing some of the most backbreaking labor available. Afghan children work for even less.

"This is work for a poor person. We don't look for them. Their parents bring them because they don't have any source of income," says Bayali (his only name), owner of Adhlat Motor Carriage, a car repair shop in Quetta. "Instead of roaming in the streets, we bring them here and we show them how to work. And in the future they will learn how to be good mechanics."

The dozen children at Ali's shop make it look more like an elementary school playground than a business. But if you look closer, the children are clearly hard at work. Six and 7-year-olds arrange tools and fetch spare parts for the older boys. Older here means 10 or 12 years old. They are busy spray-painting cars, repairing radiators and taking apart carburetors.

Ten-year-old Juma Gul, whose family moved from Kandahar, Afghanistan, when he was a baby, has helped repair diesel engines for three years. Before that, he worked two years at a car body shop. He earns 25 rupees per day, about 40 cents. His father works as a day laborer, earning 100 rupees per day.

Once in a while, Juma confesses, he spends some of his money on candy. The rest he gives to his father.

"My family needs it," he says.

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