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Schools of Hope

LONDON – Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day, when we honor the strength and courage of those who have been forced to flee their homes. Today I will be thinking of Mohammed, a Syrian refugee whom I met when I visited Istoc Primary School in Turkey last month.

In a bustling school, already full to bursting to accommodate a large local population, I watched Mohammed at the back of the classroom, intent on finishing an art project. The class was drawing artifacts from museums and holding a lively discussion about the importance of preserving culture and heritage.

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Mohammed stopped to explain how his classmates had helped him learn their language, and how he was catching up on lessons after fleeing his war-torn country to settle in Istanbul. But his dream is to have the chance to return home one day, and he is determined to study hard now to gain the knowledge and skills needed to build a new future there.

I noticed that Mohammed’s artwork was different from the other students, and he explained through an interpreter that he wanted to capture an image from home. His teacher thought that he was drawing an image of Palmyra, a historic city so devastated that UNESCO has stepped in to preserve it before nothing is left. I wondered what Mohammed will see when he returns to his beloved Syria.

Mohammed’s story is one that has been repeated countless times. During the past five years, 4.8 million Syrians have fled their country as a result of the civil war – half of them children. At Theirworld, one of our many projects has been to help refugee children get an education. We believe that education for all children should be part of the humanitarian response to conflict and disaster – a right that must be upheld alongside the provision of food, shelter, and medical care.

Education brings children and their families hope, the security of a routine, and the ability to plan for the future. Getting and keeping children in school also keeps them safe from dangers such as child labor, early marriage, and radicalization.

Theirworld was the first to campaign for funding for a pioneering double-shift system to educate Syrian refugee children, which has become hugely successful in Lebanon, Jordan, and increasingly in Turkey. The concept is simple: one group of children is taught in the morning, and the same buildings and resources are used to accommodate more children in the afternoon. Hundreds of thousands of children have enrolled, and we are now working to unlock funding to enable a total of one million children across the Middle East to return to school by 2017.

To date, Turkey has spent more than $8 billion on the crisis, more than any other country, and has welcomed nearly two million refugees, promising school places for every child when funds are available. So far, the Turkish authorities have created well over 200,000 school places for Syrian children – more than half the capacity needed so far.

Host countries like Turkey stand ready to implement this huge undertaking; but it is up to all of us to ensure that the promised funds are delivered in time. In April, the EU pledged €3 billion ($3.4 billion) to support Syrian refugees in Turkey, and education has been listed as a top priority – a mark of recognition for all those who fought to bring the issue to the table. Now everyone has to gather around that table and guarantee that no red tape, no political issues, and no practical barriers stand in the way of these children’s chance to return to school.

The international community took a major step in this direction at last month’s World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, where the Education Cannot Wait fund was launched to cope with the inevitable “next” emergency. The new fund aims to establish a permanent source of finance to bridge the gap between humanitarian interventions during crises and long-term post-crisis development.

For now, education is at the back of the queue in the immediate aftermath of crises, accounting for only 2% of humanitarian aid, the bulk of which is allocated to health, housing, and food. But with a target of $3.85 billion over five years, Education Cannot Wait hopes to reach more than 13.6 million children like Mohammed, who otherwise would have to wait years to return to their studies.

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For children in much of the world, the summer holiday has arrived; many refugee children will spend it working to bring in small amounts of income for their families, or sitting idle in unfamiliar cities or camps. But let’s hope that school funding for Syrian refugees is sorted out across Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and wherever it is needed so that the planning needed to accommodate every child can start. The communities where refugees reside are ready to make it happen; it is now time to unlock the funding they need.

This commentary was produced in cooperation with Women and Girls Hub.