Read­ing, writ­ing, and refugees

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Just days ago, Ab­dul al-Kader, his four-year-old daugh­ter, Ab­delil­lah, draped over his shoul­ders, was pho­tographed stand­ing at a dan­ger­ous in­ter­sec­tion in Beirut, try­ing to sell biro pens to feed his fam­ily. The im­age of this Syr­ian refugee fam­ily’s plight, tweeted by a Nor­we­gian, Gis­sur Si­monar­son, im­me­di­ately went vi­ral.

Within a day or two, £100,000 ($154,000) was raised to help Ab­dul, Ab­delil­lah, and her nine-year-old sis­ter, Reem. When asked what he would do with the money, Ab­dul said he would use it to ed­u­cate his chil­dren and their friends.

The story of Ab­dul and his chil­dren high­lights an ob­vi­ous, if over­looked, truth: far from seek­ing to scrounge off Europe, thou­sands of Syr­ian ex­iles are des­per­ate to re­turn home as soon as it is safe. It is sheer des­per­a­tion that is forc­ing them to em­bark on life-threat­en­ing voy­ages.

And they are not alone. An as­ton­ish­ing 30 mil­lion chil­dren are dis­placed around the world: two-thirds to other parts of their coun­tries, and the rest forced to flee from their home­lands al­to­gether.

Some refugees are vic­tims of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters – for ex­am­ple, the one mil­lion chil­dren re­cently made home­less by the earth­quake in Nepal. Oth­ers are dis­placed by cli­mate change. But the main rea­son for the ris­ing num­ber of refugees is vi­o­lent con­flict. Five years ago, war and fight­ing dis­placed roughly 5,000 chil­dren per day; to­day, that num­ber is more than 20,000.

Aside from Afghanistan since the 1970s, So­ma­lia since the 1980s, the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of Congo since the 1990s, and now Syria, the past year alone has seen refugees flee­ing the Cen­tral African Re­pub­lic, South Su­dan, Iraq, Libya, Ye­men, and Bu­rundi. And, be­cause the av­er­age time a refugee is away from his or her home­land is ten years, mil­lions of refugee chil­dren could go with­out ed­u­ca­tion for most of their child­hood years.

That sce­nario – life on the streets, with some chil­dren trapped in slave-labour con­di­tions, oth­ers traf­ficked for pros­ti­tu­tion or forced into un­wanted mar­riages, and all vul­ner­a­ble to ex­trem­ists who seek to ex­ploit their suf­fer­ing – is so un­ac­cept­able that it forces us to act. While food, medicine, and shel­ter come first, ed­u­ca­tion must be a high pri­or­ity.

I found that out a few weeks ago while vis­it­ing a refugee cen­tre in Beirut, where moth­ers pleaded with me to get their chil­dren into school. They un­der­stood that while nutri­tion and health care are vi­tal to sur­vival, ed­u­ca­tion – which en­ables young peo­ple to pre­pare and plan for the fu­ture – is what gives them hope.

Yet, de­spite the ef­forts of in­ter­na­tional agen­cies, these vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren will con­tinue to fall through the cracks un­less dras­tic ac­tion is taken now. Refugee chil­dren lose out be­cause they ben­e­fit mainly from hu­man­i­tar­ian aid, which main­tains a short-term fo­cus on shel­ter and food, and de­vel­op­ment aid, which is by its very na­ture long-term. Only 2% of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid cur­rently goes to schools, and aid agen­cies strug­gle to cope with emer­gen­cies.

To ad­dress this, plans are un­der­way for a hu­man­i­tar­ian fund that can pro­vide money to keep schools op­er­at­ing through an emer­gency or to build new ones in refugee camps and set­tle­ments. In­deed, the real test for such a fund is in coun­tries such as Jor­dan, Le­banon, and Tur­key, where ser­vices are at a break­ing point and some two mil­lion chil­dren – the ma­jor­ity with no school­ing – are lan­guish­ing in shacks, tents, huts, and squalid camps.

Tur­key has 621,000 Syr­ian child refugees and needs ad­di­tional school ca­pac­ity for some 400,000. Le­banon has 510,000, with no room for 300,000. Jor­dan has 350,000, and is 90,000 places short.

Last week, the Global Busi­ness Coali­tion for Ed­u­ca­tion and the char­ity Theirworld out­lined a way for­ward that is eco­nom­i­cal and can be im­ple­mented im­me­di­ately. The plan is sim­ple: dou­ble shifts in ex­ist­ing schools, with lo­cal chil­dren at­tend­ing dur­ing the first half of the day, and refugee chil­dren at­tend­ing dur­ing the sec­ond half. The plan could en­sure that one mil­lion refugee chil­dren are not con­demned to lose their chance at an ed­u­ca­tion.

Over the past year, thanks to in­ter­na­tional donors around the world and a de­ter­mined ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, Elias Bou Saab, 106,000 refugee chil­dren in Le­banon have been en­rolled un­der a dou­ble-shift sys­tem. Start­ing with the new au­tumn term, the to­tal is set to rise to 140,000.

But the fund­ing for this year is $30 mln short – and 60,000 of the stu­dents can­not be ac­com­mo­dated. And then there are the 300,000 chil­dren in Le­banon alone whose ed­u­ca­tion needs re­main to be met.

Nor­mally in an emer­gency, there are no fa­cil­i­ties, build­ings, or staff to keep chil­dren in school. What is miss­ing in Jor­dan, Le­banon, and Tur­key, how­ever, are not class­rooms or trained teach­ers – there are plenty lo­cally and among adult Syr­ian refugees – but the money to pay for them.

The sums are not large rel­a­tive to the scale of the prob­lem. For just over $500 a year, or $10 per child per week, we can pro­vide school places that would al­low par­ents and chil­dren to do what they would pre­fer to do – be ed­u­cated in the re­gion.

Later this month in New York, I will ask the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity – old donors and po­ten­tial new donors alike – to add another $250 mln to the $100 mln that we have al­ready raised for Le­banon. If an im­pov­er­ished refugee fa­ther is will­ing to give all he has to help chil­dren go to school, surely $10 dol­lars a week is not too much for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to of­fer to keep a refugee child off the streets.

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