It is a dangerous time to be a child in Yemen. Besides facing war, hunger and poverty, more than 25 percent of children are not in school.
But eight-year-old singer Amr Muqbel, known as "The Water Seller," is different.
He attends school in the morning. In the afternoons, he used to sell water to help support his family. Now, he makes extra money singing for weddings, fans and several major Arabic news channels.
“I’m proud he has become a singer,” said Ahmed Muqbel, Amr’s 70-year-old father, with tears in his eyes. One of their relatives is a soldier, he added, and Amr used to sing war songs.
Now, he sings about love and peace in a country where other children can be forced to join military groups.
"Children out of school face increased risks of all forms of exploitation, including being forced to join the fighting, child labor, and early marriage," said Sara Nyanti, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen, in a statement.
Teachers in the schools have not been paid in more than two years. As the war continues, danger for children outside of the school system deepens, workers for aid organizations say.
Amr first became well-known this year when a local hiker recorded him singing to a group of people. The hiker posted the recording on Facebook, where it received 20,000 likes, loves and sad faces.
Since then, the boy appears on Arab media regularly. He has appeared on BBC Arabic, Al Jazeera Arabic and RT Arabic.
Amr’s family remains poor, however. He, his mother and his four siblings still struggle to survive in a small house. But as Amr gains the attention of music professionals, the family hopes his voice will help lift them further out of poverty.
"I didn't even know Amr was singing for the drivers," said Amr’s mother, Muneerah, near her Sanaa home. "He sells water so he can earn money to pay for his private school fees. I used to reprimand Amr for singing while he did his homework.”
Sobhi Mohammed is a renowned Syrian Kurdish music writer from Lebanon. He has expressed interest in mentoring Amr, inviting him through an online video to visit Lebanon. Mohammed has mentored other young people with musical skills, like Nomer El Beik and Amir Amuri from Syria.
“I was like Amr while still a little boy,” Mohammed said in an online report. “I promised myself that I would assist every talented child who had no one.”
Amr has not gone to Lebanon because of passport delays and competing ideas about his future. His father wants to go to Lebanon so Amr can try to get into the professional music business. His mother wants Amr to continue to be mentored locally, so he can sing more often at weddings to increase the family’s income.
“I believe Amr will become a star," added Mohammed. "He has the voice and charisma."
Publicly, Amr has accepted Mohammed’s invitation in an online video. Some of his local fans do not want him to leave.
"His songs come out from his heart," said Mohammed al-Adaimi, a 23-year-old who listens to Amr’s songs on YouTube. "He should stay and sing for us and we will support him."
Like other fans, al-Adaimi is concerned Amr’s musical style might change if he trains in Lebanon. He might learn a more common Lebanese style of Arab music.
Other local people said they are proud that a young Yemeni is getting international attention. “He is a talented boy,” said Mabrouk al-Baqash, who has been listening to Amr sing for eight months. “It’s fine to travel to Lebanon.”
I’m Jonathan Evans. And I'm Dorothy Gundy.
Naseh Shaker and Gabrielle Resnick wrote this report for VOA News. Caty Weaver adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.
Words in This Story
exploitation - n. the act of to use (someone or something) in a way that helps you unfairly
hiker - n. someone who walks a long distance especially for pleasure and/or exercise
reprimand - v. to speak in an angry and critical way to (someone who has done something wrong, disobeyed an order, etc.)
mentor - v. to teach or give advice or guidance to (someone, such as a less experienced person or a child) : to act as a mentor for (someone)
talented - adj. having a special ability to do something well : having talent
charisma - n. a special charm or appeal that causes people to feel attracted and excited by someone (such as a politician)
style - n. a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed
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