World Refugee Day: Syria’s Children

By Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education

Today is World Refugee Day. And today the world is facing a catastrophe that has displaced and exiled more people than the Asian Tsunami of 2004 and the Haiti earthquake of 2010.

For over three years 160,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war, 2.7million have left Syria and 6.5million are exiled in their own country. In over half the country’s population have been forced from their homes.

It is true that the pace of change in the Middle East has become so bewilderingly fast that amidst the abductions and executions, the bombings and burnings, and the exodus of refugees and the starvation of communities, humanitarians everywhere are struggling to see what they can do to make a difference.

But there are immediate practical and relatively inexpensive steps we can take to help the most v vulnerable victims of a crisis that is not their fault- the child refugees who are pouring into Lebanon and surrounding countries from war torn Syria.

But that is only the start – these already horrific numbers are due to rise in the coming year, with the refugee population spread across the region rising to 4million 20 per cent of Syrians will soon be outside their country, the largest group of refugees, more than 1million, are now in Lebanon, a country which had a population of 4million three years ago.

Now with half a million Syrian children in their country one third of Lebanon’s school age population are Syrians. They are becoming the lost generation- not just thrown out of their own country, poor homeless and at risk of disease – but also excluded from school, job prospects and what matters as much for a young life – hope.

Education is one very practical and immediate humanitarian gift that can be made to help these Syrian children and heed the calls of 50 of the world’s top anti-poverty advocacy groups and international institutions that ‘Education cannot wait.’

Some children now aged seven and eight, have never spent one day in school. Others have started but not finished their education and the evidence is that once out of school for months and then years it is almost impossible to get them back.

On best estimates they are likely to spend at least 10 years away from their homes in camps or temporary shelters.

Of course they need food when starving, shelter when destitute, medical drugs when faced with the risk of polio – and our international effort to provide these is being stepped up – but they also need hope. Hope that there IS a future worth preparing for. If they are not to lose their childhoods – a time that can never be relived and a loss that can never be replaced – the one sure way to deliver hope is by ensuring they can resume their education.

Amidst this backdrop of despair, there is, incredibly, a plan. It puts existing Lebanese schools throughout the country on double shifts, offering one set of classes by day, another by evening, and thus all refugees spread across the country can now have the chance of schooling. And because we are spared the expense of building new classrooms and schools, the annual cost is an astonishingly economic five pounds-a-week per pupil.

It is being acted out in embryo in a small village in the north of Lebanon with the help of a small Edinburgh based charity which has been offering finance and supplies for the refugees. In the morning Lebanese children are taught in English and French and in the afternoon Syrian children come to school to learn in Arabic with the help of Syrian exiled Syrian teachers. The system is working it is, with both communities ready to overcome ancient enmities to assist each other.

The plan that would cover the entire community of excluded Syrian children – a school ‘timeshare’ to cope with an emergency – can be operational within weeks. This week the Lebanese Education Minister will make an impassioned plea for his nation and its people. One of the world’s smallest countries, Lebanon has been left to shoulder the biggest burden of the crisis and it is unable to cope without international support. The burden they now bear is the equivalent of 15million refugees arriving on the shores of the United Kingdom.

Having put himself on the line to sell this plan to a divided population many of whom want to throw out the Syrian refugees, he is asking why so much of the world has yet to support the plan.

The world is slowly listening – 89,000 Syrian children are now in public schools in Lebanon and 36,168 children (50 per cent of girls) have also benefited from non-formal education with a further 15,577 children receiving psychosocial support. However, around 260,000 Syrian children are estimated to remain out of school.

The USA, Norway, Denmark and the UAE have backed the shift school plan, which would cost $195million a year to secure schooling if we cover all the children. It is money that will be well spent.

But with a $100million shortfall just weeks before the new school year begins refugee children desperate for education are unlikely to have school places available for them. I know from my own experience that every single child is precious, every child special, every child unique -and every child deserves a chance to flourish. But an important principle is also at stake too.

More than 100 years ago, the Red Cross established the principle that the right to health care transcends borders. Now we can establish that even in war zones children can study. Some good can yet emerge out of the ruins.

Syrian girls study in a camp in Lebanon. Picture: ©UNESCO/L. Addario