Geopolitics

In Syria, That Other Casualty Of War: Education

Many Syrian children are forced to leave school and work as child laborers for employers who ofter mistreat them. New statistics shows a 30% drop in school attendance since the war began.

A school worker shows a classroom damaged by a mortar shell in Damascus
A school worker shows a classroom damaged by a mortar shell in Damascus
Alia Ahmad and Karen Leigh

DAMASCUS — Mohammad, a 13-year-old from the Husseiniya neighborhood in Damascus, left school after the seventh grade. He says that after his father was killed by fighting in the family's neighborhood, he had to leave school and work in a sawmill. "My mom is sick, and I am the eldest of five brothers," he says. "We fled from our house, and now we live in a partially constructed house. The aid that comes from the Red Crescent is barely enough."

Truancy rates among Syrian students have increased dramatically since the beginning of the Syrian war. The country's minister of education told the pro-government al-Thawra newspaper that the number of students enrolled in Syrian schools in 2011 was more than 5.5 million, but for 2013-14, there were only 4 million enrolled, which amounts to a truancy rate of about 30%.

On the verge of tears, Mohammad says he is "not happy" with the work. "The sawmill only pays me 500 Syrian pounds ($3.50), per week even though I work from 9 in the morning until 6 in the evening every day except for Fridays. I feel exploited and wish I could return to school, but my mom needs the money."

According to UNICEF, more than a million Syrian children have fled with their families to neighboring countries, their education cut off in the process. Hundreds of thousands more have been displaced but remain in the country. UNICEF also reports that one in five Syrian schools has been damaged.

With family resources dwindling, even children with access to schooling are being pulled from class and sent to work. There, many are mistreated by their new employers.

Eleven-year-old Samir has not attended classes since the fourth grade and now works with his 14-year-old brother in a falafel restaurant.

"I clean tables in the restaurant and bring food to customers," he says. "The owner of the restaurant beats me and calls me bad names whenever I go out to play a little bit with the kids, and he threatens us every time my brother runs away from work."

No other choice

His mother defends her decision to allow her son to work. After her husband disappeared a year ago, she rented a makeshift room on a roof for her and her four kids for 2,000 Syrian pounds ($13.50) per month. It's owned by the same man who owns the restaurant.

"I work cleaning the building's stairs and hallways so we don't end up on the streets," she says. "I never wanted my kids to leave school, but they failed classes last year, and I can’t help them with their studies. The challenges of our lives are overwhelming.”

Children for whom school is no longer possible work some of the most physically demanding jobs available to child laborers. Some carry crates into local vegetable markets and are compensated by the load, while others cut wood or work in the soap and cleaning supply factories that are spread out along Kasweh Road or Jdeidah in rural Damascus. The factories expose them to chemicals that often make them sick.

Lu’ay, a 15-year-old from the city's al-Dahadeel neighborhood, left school in the ninth grade and now works in the vegetable market.

"There are those who sexually molest young children, and no one dares to stop them because they would injure anyone who would try to stop them," she says. "I wish I could complete my studies, but my father is disabled, and we are a large family of seven. I don't want my mother to have to work as a housemaid."

She and some other young female truants find themselves in the professional workplace, but the majority help their mothers at home with sewing, cooking and other domestic trades before being married off earlier than they might have been before the conflict, which their mothers think will ensure a better future.

It doesn't always work. "Most truant girls marry early, and some get divorced after a short period of time, often returning to their parents with a child," says Ula, a school principal from Sahnaya.

"This makes it harder on the parents, who had the girl get married in order to preserve scant family resources. Unfortunately, there isn’t sufficient awareness about the importance of education. Even for those who appreciate education, difficult circumstances have forced them to have their children leave school to work."


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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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