Arts, Culture & Media

Once a child laborer in Iran, now a high school student in Utah

This story is a part of a series

Updated:

This story is a part of a series

sonita-studio.jpg

Sonita Alizadeh sings inside of the recording studio at her high school in Utah.

Credit:

Shuka Kalantari

I’m doing my homework right now. Something that some of my friends call "work." They don’t know that for some children work is something else entirely. It's standing in the rain and snow to sell a few stems of flowers. Maybe the only thing that would make these kids happy is getting to go to school, and getting to do homework. I used to be one of those kids.

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I was a child laborer when I was a refugee in Iran. I was living with my brother, and our conversations were pretty heavy most of the time: He wanted me to abandon my education and go back to Afghanistan, because paying rent was very hard for him — his income was just enough to take care of himself and sometimes help my mother.

So I decided to start working, despite the fact it was highly unacceptable in my family for a girl to work outside the house. I started working, cleaning the nonprofit that gave me an education every day in order to make ends meet. I was at the school from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. I would clean the nonprofit in the morning, then go to my classes. In the afternoon I would clean the nonprofit again, and then go home. Most of the time my friends would help me.

The only thing that would bother and embarrass me was cleaning the toilets in front of the students, my friends. Gradually, life became harder, because I took responsibility for all the expenses. As conditions become harder, I also became tougher. No longer was I ashamed of washing the toilets. In reality, I was happy to be able to pay the rent, or buy some things for myself. I had more confidence in myself. I knew that if my life conditions had any mercy on me, I had developed enough strength to find myself a way out through the walls.

Sonita Alizadeh is an Afghan teen who got out of a child marriage by writing a rap song about it. Here Sonita is singing about child labor in an old church that's been converted into an recital hall at Wasatch Academy, Sonita's new college prep high school in Utah.

I was given a chance when I received a full scholarship to Wasatch Academy in Utah. But these students' thoughts and concerns are often different than my own. 

Students at Wasatch Academy do many presentations on things affecting the planet, such as pollution, recycling and dying oceans. As an Afghan refugee in Iran, my childhood was spent searching for a safe place. As a child laborer, I didn’t have time to explore or think about the world. Only time to work and learn ways to survive.

I wonder why they do not present about war, about child brides, about child laborers. Maybe because they don’t know. Maybe this is where my voice should be heard. That’s why I decided to write a song about child laborers, so that maybe it would help people pay more attention to these children.

I am grateful for being raised in life’s most difficult conditions — hard conditions that taught me to be strong from the root. I am grateful that my life gave me the opportunity to make mistakes, so I could find the correct path. I am grateful that I didn’t earn anything in life the easy way, so when I had them I appreciated them even more. I am grateful.

"Child Laborers"
by Sonita Alizadeh
(translated by Nazy Kaviani)

Look! The night sky is raining stars
There is no war up there, everything is calm
Over here, when night befalls, hearts bleed 
But over there - there is light hidden in the heart of the night
You and I must get away from days like these
Go to the sky, hide there for a few nights
In that place where Moon becomes our slide
Even stars will come to play in our game

Do you know?
Do you know?

Over there labor really has no meaning,
There is not even a fright when night is approaching
Over there our lantern is the sun
God would say, ‘Stand up and shine!’
Over there people are not sad
Over there gazes are not heavy
Over there God yearns for us
Over there God knows kindness, unlike some people
Over there is your place and mine - where there is no labor
in a child’s world – labor is not forced

Do you know?
Do you know?

You and I are doomed to go through days like these
for us to sell these people their printed fortune
Why is our fortune a black piece of paper!
Why is it an endless hollow repetition!

Do you know? 
Do you know?

It’s possible to keep us away from doing labor, 
so we could feel a childhood, at least for once
Our days and nights are repetitions of black and white
They don’t know what to answer, so they say you must
God has promised, there is no labor up there
And we are not tired faces in a picture frame
that reminds us of days
when we were living a repetitive life

We’ll be following Sonita's journey throughout the school year. Join us on Twitter (#SonitasWorld) and Instagram to follow her story.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Wasatch Academy. We sincerely regret the error.