Lebanon has been taking steps to stamp out child labour and steer children away from working jobs classified by the International Labour Organisation as the "worst forms of child labour".
According to unofficial estimates, "hundreds of thousands" of children in Lebanon are working jobs in industry, agriculture and other fields that extend past regular working hours and exact a heavy physical and psychological toll.
In addition to being hard on the children, social workers tell Al-Mashareq, this type of environment can lead vulnerable children down dangerous paths, putting them at risk of drug abuse or falling prey to extremist recruitment.
As part of a national plan to end to child labour, the Beyond Foundation has been working to open social protection centres in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour and various international organisations.
Late last month, two centres were opened in the northern city of Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley town of Saadnayel. Last year, a centre was opened in the Ouzai district of Beirut, with a fourth centre slated to open in Nabatiyeh in the south.
'My life has changed'
Hundreds of child and adolescent labourers are expected to benefit from the services provided by the three centres.
Among them are Jibrael Lattash, 15, of Bab al-Tabbaneh in Tripoli and Majd Murad, 14, of Tripoli's al-Baddawi refugee camp, both of whom registered with the Tripoli's Jabal Mohsen centre in June 2016, ahead of its official opening.
Jibrail told Al-Mashareq he began working at the age of 7.
"I worked in a glass and aluminum factory every day from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., non-stop," he said. "I used to return home exhausted."
"I was deprived of my childhood, going to school and playing with my friends and was exposed to the dangers in the streets until I joined the centre," he said.
Today, he is studying Arabic, French and English, mathematics, art and music and is involved in the protection centre's activities.
"I regained my normal life and I am learning a craft to make it my profession in the future," he said.
Majd told Al-Mashareq he used to work at a juice shop from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., where he was mistreated by the employees and customers and had little time for life outside of work.
"Today, I do not have to work, and I am taking advantage of the educational centre's programmes," he said. "My life has changed and I feel free."
On the day it opened, the centre in Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood received 170 children between the ages of 7 and 18, social worker Ghusoun Yaghi told Al-Mashareq.
Many of these children were suffering from psychological problems, she said, noting that they were socially withdrawn, lacked self-confidence and did not know how to fend for themselves.
At the centre, they can begin to break free from their problems, she said.
The centre is open from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and is left open for sports and creative activities in the afternoon.
The centre's goal is to steer these children away from difficult working conditions and rehabilitate them, either by sending them to school or back to the labour market, armed with new skills and expertise, she said.
Part of a national plan
The social protection centres are part of a national plan developed by the Ministry of Labour in 2005 to end child labour by 2019, Beyond Foundation executive director Maria Assi told Al-Mashareq.
The plan aims to tackle the worst forms of child labour, to protect children from the dangers of the street and prevent them from pursuing a path that could lead them to violence and terrorism, she said.
Since its inception, the plan has been modified several times, she said, and after the outbreak of the Syrian war was updated to include Syrian children.
So far, she said, the protection centres have pulled a large number of Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi children off the streets and away from certain jobs in the central Bekaa Valley and some districts of Beirut and Tripoli.
These include jobs in agriculture and heavy industry, often worked for extended hours, she added.
While there are no official statistics on the number of child labourers in Lebanon, Assi estimates them in the hundreds of thousands.
The Saadnayel Centre officially opened on February 28th, following a series of meetings with municipalities, government and non-governmental officials in Zahle on how to reach the largest possible number of child labourers, Assi said.
"The Saadnayel Centre received 400 children ranging in age from 2 to 18," she said. "It offers them, as do the other centres, literacy programmes, social protection, psychological support, painting therapy, music, theatre, language lessons -- including Arabic, French and English --and mathematics lessons."
The centres protect children between the ages of 2 and 8 from being forced to work by their families and provide children between the ages of 8 and 14 with education programmes to qualify them for formal school, she said.
Children between the ages of 14 and 18 are offered vocational programmes to equip them with manual and light industrial skills to help them with their future careers, she added.
"We view child labourers as victims and are working to help them so their work circumstances and poor economic situations do not lead them to involvement in armed conflicts or drugs," she said.