Experiencing one of the most unique societies in the world…

Jilaal: Facing Child Laborers

YEMEN– This is Jilaal. There is nothing unique about him. He is ordinary, just like many other children his age in Yemen and around the world. His story is the story of the thousands of Yemeni children who are forced into the perilous streets of Yemen to make a living. He is an orphaned child who we came across at a rest stop in Ibb governorate. After a long day of travel, a few friends of mine stopped to rest and overindulge in a hefty dinner before continuing their long trip back to Sana’a. While trying to finish their oversized dinner plates, they were diverted by loud yelling coming from the entrance of the restaurant. The owner of the restaurant was hauling a small boy out of the busy eatery. They didn’t make anything of it only until they made their way back to their car. They found the boy sitting outside, slouched with his arms crossed. They asked him what the quarrel was about. Turned out, the boy asked the restaurant owner for a handful of rice to fill his stomach before he returned to work. Like many other boys his age, Jilaal tries to pick up odd jobs in the Ibb and Ta’iz governorates, and spends a lot of his time on the road.

My friends decided to bring him home to Sana’a, hoping they could better his situation. On the trip from the rest stop to Sana’a, Jilaal appeared to be nervous and uncomfortable. You would expect him to be when in a strange car with two strange men. He forced himself to stay awake until he arrived in Sana’a safely. Upon arriving to our home, we had already prepared a suitcase with fresh new clothes, shoes and some pocket money for the month. As I greeted him at the door, I was brought to tears. He was frail and skeletal, sun burned and frost bit. He was malnourished and clearly emotionally and psychologically abused. I approached him, trying to get closer to him. He resisted, stepping back with fear and uncertainty filling his eyes. As he made way into the house, he took a seat without letting his guard down. I sat down next to him and tried to reach out to him with my hand, but his hands were firmly placed on his lap. I placed my hand on his and felt what I realized was the story of his struggle. As I rubbed my hand over his, I felt the splinters from what was sure caused by the laborious work he had done, cracks from what was sure to be frost bite caused by his long nights alone on the streets. The surface of his skin resembled sandpaper and its skeletal feel a sign of lack of nourishment and food rations.

Although his hands and skin exhibited all the physical signs of abuse, his eyes gave away the rest. The fear and uncertainty in his eyes revealed his dark and abusive life and struggle. There were clear signs of molestation and abuse when he backed away into the wall as I tried sizing up a pair of trousers to have him change into. A strong sense of shame overwhelmed me. As I was seated next to him in my elaborately furnished villa, wearing my designer clothes I felt embarrassed and self-conscious. I felt little and trivial. I looked at the small child and felt like the weight he has carried in his short life is more than I would ever know and understand. As my younger siblings entered the room I walked away and allowed them to make his acquaintance. I watched from a distance and suddenly was astounded by his smile. He smiled, and with this smile I found a snippet of what was left of his innocence and purity. Bizarrely, a sense of envy overpowered me. I envied this boy. Not for the horrible life he was forced to live, but for his resilience. For his ability to smile despite all he had experienced. I was envious of his strength. As he began to nibble on some of the cookies and pastries we gave him, I was distracted by what I assumed was him mumbling beneath his breath. As I got closer, I realized that between every bite, he read a prayer, a prayer and supplication of all thanks be to Allah. How can the weak person in me not be envious?

Again, Jilaal is not unique nor one of a kind. I met Jilaal in July and continue to fall in love with him more and more every day. He is a part of a marginalized group that serves as a majority in Yemen. He is hauled out of restaurants when he asks for food to fill his churning stomach, he is ignored and unnoticed as he stands on street corners asking for work, and those who choose to notice him look at him with pity and shame; but we shouldn’t pity him, we should pity ourselves. He has lived and seen the world for what it can be. He has seen the good and the bad. He has experienced life in a way we can never understand. And with this he is able to smile.

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