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Syrian Cotton Pickers

Syrian girl
India girl
India girl
Small, sick, listless children have long been India’s scourge — “a national shame,” in the words of its prime minister, Manmohan Singh. But even after a decade of galloping economic growth, child malnutrition rates are worse here than in many sub-Saharan African countries, and they stand out as a paradox in a proud democracy. | Photo: Steve McCurry | India, Girl, Child, Hunger, Charity,

More childhoods lost: Part three.

I remember how every summer throughout my childhood and into my adolescent years our home was always fully stocked with some of the best strawberries available in America ' ones that come from the strawberry fields scattered throughout southern Appalachia in the southeastern United States. I also remember how every single year in the late fall or early winter my family would go to a nearby Christmas tree farm and buy a freshly cut Fraser Fir that we would take back home, decorate, and keep in our home throughout the Christmas season. Admittedly, I never gave much thought to what went into these strawberries making their way from under the ground and into my mouth, or how these Fraser Firs made their way from beneath the earth's surface and into our home's living room. I never knew who the strawberry pickers were, or who the Christmas tree cutters were. Honestly, I never even so much as pondered over it during the many years I enjoyed these gifts from nature while growing up in the southeastern United States. I did, however, begin to mull over strawberries and Christmas trees more once I moved to the Arab World.

One day while living in the Middle East I was riding on a micro-bus (an 11 person mini-van with an extra bench seat squeezed in to have seats for 14 people) en route to work, and I remember passing two donkey-carts. These donkey-carts were being driven (or ridden) by 3 children each, none of whom could have been more than ten- or eleven-years-old. Despite their young age, their weathered skin and eyes spoke volumes. They revealed years of work that effectively resulted in these six kids having lost their childhoods entirely.

These specific donkey-carts serve as trash collection vehicles for people who work as garbage collectors throughout the city. The garbage collectors in Middle Eastern cities generally all live in slum communities and go to nearby wealthy neighborhoods to collect trash. They then take it back to their neighborhoods and sort through it for things that can be salvaged and sold or recycled into usable items. The families who do this usually have the children working by the time they are five-years-old. As such, these children never have the opportunity to attend any type of formal schooling at all. And while the ones I saw on that particular morning were probably only ten- or eleven-years-old, they all most likely had more hours of "work" under their belts than most 25-year-old Americans; they probably had more than I did at 25.

That type of child labor, as horrible as it sounds, was before the Arab Spring. These days, the situation is much, much worse in some parts of the Middle East. It is especially worse for many of the Syrian refugees throughout the region.

In Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, for instance, the amount of child labor amongst Syrian refugees is astonishing, and the type of work they are resigned to is brutally difficult to say the least. In reality, these jobs carried out by Syria's refugee children historically were done by adult manual laborers, not children. Yet now, the sight of young Syrian refugee children working in vegetable fields owned by wealthy Lebanese landowners for 12 ' 14 hours a day is commonplace throughout the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon.

I can judge and blame the parents for this. I can say they must not love their children very much to have them out working 12 - 14 hours each day. Yet I've never walked in these families' shoes, or ever been faced with the struggles that they must face each and every single day. I've never been in a situation where having enough food to eat for the day is determined by whether or not I allow my children to attend school and have a "normal" childhood, or have them out working. I've never been forced to go to bed hungry at night. I've never had to watch my child cry himself to sleep at night due to having gone to bed with hunger pains. I've never, ever been forced to walk in the shoes of these families, and I likely never will.

I can judge and blame consumerist societies for this. I can say that the mass amount of consumerism and demand that products be available to the end-user at the least expensive price, regardless of how that affects the workers, is the problem. Indeed, there are those who are thoroughly ' and inexpensively ' enjoying fruits and vegetables grown on farms owned by wealthy landowners in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. These landowners employ immigrants ' which these days primarily means Syrian refugee children ' to do nearly all of the physically demanding manual labor. And let me be absolutely clear about something: To claim these workers ' these children ' are being paid a "fair wage", would be entirely thoughtless and patronizing to say the least. And it would be a lie.

However, looking at it in that light ' that one of the causes of child labor is selfish consumerism at the expense of gross worker-exploitation ' reveals that I've benefited from that system just as much as the next person has. You see, I've eaten fruits and vegetables grown in the Bekaa Valley.

I also enjoyed, year after year throughout my entire childhood, strawberries and Fraser Fir Christmas trees grown on farms owned by wealthy landowners in the southeastern United States who employ Hispanic immigrants to do nearly all of the physically demanding manual labor. And again, to claim that all of these workers are being paid a "fair wage" would be thoughtless and patronizing. It also would be a lie. I'm not by any means accusing every single strawberry farm and Christmas tree farm landowner in America of exploiting Hispanic immigrants by paying them un-fair wages. I am saying that I believe some, which is too many, do.

It goes without saying that poverty, in all of its forms, is a worldwide problem with no simple solutions. The plight of the poor is one that often times conjures up feelings of being overwhelmed due to its magnitude, angered by the systematic injustices, and questioning how and why such extreme poverty and suffering even exists.

Unfortunately, as is too often the case, we allow these hurdles and obstacles to paralyze us from doing anything about it at all. In general this is then played out in our shutting down and turning a blind eye to the injustices that we perpetuate with our own consumerist lifestyles and practices, and in turn, the horrific effects these have on the lives of the world's poor.

Or instead we can try and convert this frustration and anger into creative, useful energy, and ask what we can do to help. Maybe a good place to begin would be to reflect upon the strawberries and Christmas trees we all ' myself included ' have that consume our lives.

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Updated Apr 22, 2017 6:00 AM EDT | More details

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