SANAA, YEMEN - It is a dangerous time to be a child in Yemen. Besides facing war, widespread malnutrition and abject poverty, more than 25 percent of children are not in school.
But 8-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 bottles to help support his family, who only last year were each living on less than $1 a day. 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, the elder Muqbel added, and Amr used to sing war songs.
Now he sings about love and peace in a country where other children face being forced to join military groups. Teachers haven’t been paid in over two years, and as the war drags on the danger for children outside of the school system deepens, according to aid organizations.
"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.
Amr first became well-known this year when a local hiker recorded him serenading a group with the tune “You are my love. Where have you been all my life?” and posted it on Facebook, where it received 20,000 likes, loves and sad faces.
Since then, he has become a darling of the Arab media, appearing on BBC Arabic, Al Jazeera Arabic and RT Arabic.
Despite his growing popularity, Amr’s family remains poor. He, his mother and his four siblings still struggle to survive in a small house held together with mud bricks. 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, a renowned Syrian Kurdish composer based in Lebanon, has expressed interest in mentoring Amr, inviting him via an online video to visit Lebanon. Mohammed has mentored other young talents, like Nomer El Beik and Amir Amuri from Syria.
“I was like Amr while still a little boy,” Mohammed said in an online interview. “I promised myself that I would assist every talented child who had no one.”
But travels to Lebanon so far have been stymied by passport delays and competing ideas about how to build his future. His father wants to go to Lebanon so Amr can try to break into the commercial 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 more reliably.
“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, but some of his local fans object.
"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 was concerned Amr may abandon his Yemeni musical style and adopt the more common Lebanese style of Arab music if he trains out of the country. “He is at an age where he is vulnerable to change,” said al-Adaimi.
Other locals said they were proud a young Yemeni was 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.”