Syrian children forced to quit school, marry early to survive

Hear the story of Jomaa and Hadya, two childhood friends who are now living the lives of adults in Lebanon

By Hedinn Halldorsson
Jomaa, 14
23 January 2017

In Lebanon, many Syrian refugee children have had their childhoods cut short. Some are forced to work so their family can have a steady income, while others are forced into early marriage for their own protection and to save money. Hear the story of Jomaa and Hadya, two childhood friends who are now living the lives of adults.

BEIRUT, Lebanon, 23 January 2017 – Four years ago, when they were both 10 years old, Jomaa and Hadya were great friends who enjoyed a happy childhood. They used to play football after school and do homework together.

Today, neither one of them is going to school. Jomaa has forgotten how to read and write, and Hadya has been married off. Both children have the duties and obligations of grown-ups.

Hadya never left their Syrian hometown. Her parents married her to Jomaa’s older brother. Jomaa, on the other hand, is earning a living in Lebanon where his family has sought refuge, making sure they have a steady income. He gets paid US$2 for a 12 hour work day. 

“All of Syria was devastated. My school got bombed but my old classmates are still going there. Me and Hadya were in the same class. Then the war broke out and I forgot everything. How to read. How to write,” Jomaa says.  

The extreme poverty many Syrian refugees face is forcing them to make decisions no parent should ever have to make. Among the so-called negative coping mechanisms – the consequences of their hardship – are child marriages and child labour. In the fight against both practices, education is key.

”We are doing everything in our power to make it possible for Syrian children to attend school. As a first step, that is helping families economically so they can invest in their children’s future instead of worrying about how to feed their children,” says Tanya Chapuisat, UNICEF representative in Lebanon. “Secondary steps are to pay school fees, run two shifts in schools per day, provide learning material and offer a programme for those that have been out of school for years.”


Hanadi, 13, is a Syrian teenager who now lives as a refugee in Lebanon. She has seen two of her sisters being married away before they finished their education. For herself, she imagines a different future.

Desperate measures

“Syrian parents are perfectly aware of the importance of education for their children’s future; pre-war school attendance in Syria was more than 90 per cent. But their situation is such that often they won’t even have a choice and therefore send their children on the street or to the fields to generate an income, which explains why the attendance today is only around 50 per cent,” Ms. Chapuisat explains.

The same desperation makes people marry off their daughters.

Thirteen-year-old Hanadi, a Syrian teenager who now lives as a refugee in Lebanon, has seen the consequences of early marriage and worries for her own future.

“Girls that get married off young don't get to live or get an education. They don't know anything. I have two sisters but they were both married off at a young age. I don‘t want that to happen to me.”

The main reasons behind child marriages in the Syrian refugee context is that parents will have one less mouth to feed and simultaneously count on their daughter being safe and taken good care of. The thinking behind marrying one’s daughter off can also be a protection measure, considering the vulnerability and risk of sexual harassment girls can face in informal settlements across Lebanon.

“It’s a simple question of survival, and there is actually reason to worry because Syrian refugees’ socioeconomic situation in the country is worsening,” Ms. Chapuisat adds.

An important way of fighting child marriages is informing parents and their daughters about the risks and consequences involved. In fact, refusal of child marriage among girls is significantly greater among girls going to school than those not going to school. Again, education and awareness raising is key.

”Nothing about this is simple, but it’s doable,” Ms. Chapuisat concludes.

To watch an interview with Jomaa and learn what’s stopping him and other Syrian refugee children in Lebanon from going to school, and what UNICEF is doing about it, visit