A Breakthrough for Child Refugees?

LONDON – Buried in the declaration from the just-completed fourth United Nations’ Syria Pledging Conference in London is a little publicized but important promise: by next year, every Syrian refugee child will be offered a place in school.

The world, at long last, has taken seriously the need to provide education to conflict-affected children. Up to this point, global humanitarian aid targeting education has accounted for less than 2% of funds pledged. Though this shift is yet to be fully funded, it reflects the long overdue recognition by governments and aid agencies that humanitarian crises are not over in weeks or months, and that refugees need more than food and shelter.

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The myriad miseries confronting millions of out-of-school children should give us the political will to fulfill this pledge. Refugees spend an average of ten years away from their homes. Without intervention, many of the children displaced by Syria’s civil war – not to mention the other 24 million children worldwide who are out of school because of conflict – would never enter a classroom during their school-age years. As adults, they would remember childhoods spent in shacks, hovels, or the streets, deprived of the fulfillment and hope that comes with an education.

But the costs of a lost education extend far beyond feelings and emotions. When an education stops – or is stolen – children lose the protection of schools. Many are exploited. Young girls are targeted by traffickers and vanish into an abyss of unimaginable depravity. Young boys are forced into factories or the front lines of war.

With adults often banned from working in their country of refuge, those children lucky enough to have living parents are pushed into labor – wherever they can find it – to provide their families with some miniscule income. But no amount of stitching, shoveling, or fighting can secure a future the way an education can.

We see the costs in Syria. Without provision for children, families give up hope for any future in the region and embark on risky – and often fatal – voyages to Europe. Children who remain behind, fearful of an unknowable future, are easily recruited by extremists. If we are sincere in our desire to slow the exodus to Europe, to prevent the radicalization of children, and to prepare for Syria’s reconstruction, we must see education, not emigration (much less extremism), as a child’s passport to the future.

The failure to fund education for refugees is no accident. It is the direct result of a structurally flawed system that strands the needs of schoolchildren between humanitarian aid budgets (98% of which go to food, shelter, and health care) and development aid (which is necessarily long term).

Now that education for Syria’s child refugees has been recognized as a responsibility of the humanitarian aid system, we have to find the means to finance it. The declaration stated only that participants “noted” the need for at least $1.4 billion in annual funding. While a lot has been promised, we must ensure that it is delivered. And, even if it is, a lot more is needed, as more children are displaced every day.

There is a no better venue to build on the London declaration than the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May. At the epicenter of the world’s biggest refugee crisis, we must take another step forward, by establishing what I call the HOPE fund: The Humanitarian Operation for the Provision of Education in Emergencies, the first permanent fund guaranteeing education in conflict zones.

No one needs HOPE more than Ahmed, a 12-year-old I met in a Beirut reception center for refugees. Like most Syrian refugees, he was out of school but desperate to return. When I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he responded without hesitation: “an engineer.” I am used to hearing children tell me of their dreams to be everything from airline pilots to rap artists, but not engineers. Why an engineer? “To return home,” he said “and rebuild Syria.”

With private foundations, governments, and businesses all pledging to contribute, the HOPE fund that I have in mind could be in operation by the end of the year. With 50 companies already committing $70 million to fund education for Syrian refugees, we have shown that the most entrepreneurial and innovative companies can be partners in peace.

Consider one of our goals – digital access and online courses for children in refugee camps. If today’s technology wizards can enable us to turn on our house lights from halfway around the world, think what they could do for education in emergencies. Facebook, Google, Apple, and others have offered to help. We must now persuade them to coordinate their efforts in offering online classes for teachers and refugee children.

Fortunately, we have a success story to inspire our coming efforts. In the past year, Lebanon has taken vulnerable Syrian children off the streets by creating 207,000 school places. Under a double-shift arrangement, Syrian refugees receive instruction in the afternoon and early evening in the same classrooms that local Lebanese children occupy earlier in the day.

This successful experiment proves that it is possible to offer education to one million Syrian children in 2016, and to all of them in 2017. Following Lebanon’s example, both Turkey and Jordan have announced plans to double the number of school places for refugees.

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If we can succeed in one of the most war-ravaged regions of the world, progress elsewhere would become much more likely. The forgotten child refugees of South Sudan and Yemen would be brought out of the shadows. Myanmar’s persecuted minorities would gain the opportunity to help shape their country’s fledgling democracy. And the long-suffering boys and girls along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border would be given the tools to build a future.

The world has come together repeatedly to fight disease and disaster. We have rallied against – and toppled – dictators and tyrants. Now let us be the first generation to put every child in school.