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Syrian girls labor in Turkey’s notorious garment industry

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.”

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.”

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