Refugee families endure innumerable forms of mental and physical anguish, including the pain of being unable to provide their children with food when they are hungry or medicine when they are ill or injured. But I have also seen how much it weighs on refugee parents when they are unable to send their children to school, knowing that with each passing year, their life prospects are shrinking and their vulnerability is growing.
In a new report, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, warns that rising numbers of refugee children are not receiving an education. While the implications are grave, our response should not be to despair but instead to see an opportunity.
The global refugee crisis is a major challenge for our generation. But the task is not hopeless. Refugees themselves are not passively waiting for help, but are actively searching for ways to be part of the recovery of their countries. Education is a key to helping them to do this.
The contrasting lives of two Syrian girls I have met brought this home to me vividly.
The first was a young girl who arrived in Lebanon with her five siblings when she was 11. Her mother had been killed in an airstrike, and the children were separated from their father. There was no parent to put food on the table, so she spent her days collecting garbage to sell for miniscule amounts of money and doing the back-breaking labor of fetching water and cooking and cleaning so her siblings could go to school.
She had to set aside her dream of becoming a doctor, and at 14, she married and become a mother. Today, she still cannot read or write. Even if the war ended tomorrow, she has been robbed of her childhood and the future she might have had.
The second Syrian girl I think of as I write this piece was 16 when she fled with her family to Iraq from Syria. Their life in the barren camp was extremely hard, but she was able to enroll in a local school. Iraq’s education authorities did not recognize her Syrian baccalaureate certificate, so she repeated her final year of high school.
She now studies dentistry at an Iraqi university, while still living with her family in a refugee camp. When I met her and her family there this summer, she told me that as soon as she could she would go back to her homeland and help with its recovery. “Syria needs its young people,” she said.
We often talk about refugees as a single mass of people, a burden. We do not see the intricate mosaic of individual men, women and children with their diverse backgrounds and immense human potential.
There are millions of young refugees with the energy and desire and commitment to study and work, who want to contribute to the societies that host them and ultimately help rebuild their home countries. There are millions of displaced parents who will make every sacrifice imaginable to help their children go to school.
I remember a father I met in West Mosul, who’d somehow brought his family through years of brutal ISIS rule and the violent liberation of the city. While they hadn’t left Iraq, and so are classed as internally displaced people rather than refugees, they’d only recently been able to return to the city. Standing by their ruined, bullet-riddled former home, he fought back tears of pride as he showed me the school report cards of his two young daughters who had now returned to school.
This, in the end, I thought, is how you rebuild a country: not with peace agreements and resolutions, as necessary as those are, but with millions of school report cards, exams passed, qualifications obtained, jobs acquired, and young lives turned to good purpose rather than spent languishing in camps.
No one dreams of being a refugee; they dream of living up to their potential. They long to better themselves and their families. This is something we all instinctively understand and can relate to. We experience the power of education in our own families.
The loss of a child’s education is a tragedy. With many wars today lasting longer than the duration of a childhood, this can mean a country losing out on an entire generation of education and skills amongst its young people.
Conversely, investing in the education of refugees is the most powerful way we can help them to be self-sufficient, and contribute to the future stability of countries torn apart by conflict.
UNHCR is calling for refugee children to have access to a proper curriculum all the way through primary and secondary school, so they can get recognized qualifications and have a chance at higher education.
We are asking that more support be given to countries in developing regions, who host 92% of the world’s school-age refugees, so more refugee children can be included in national education systems. And we are urging wealthier nations to address humanitarian funding shortfalls so refugee parents don’t have to choose between food and schooling for their children.
Hardly a day goes past without bleak news headlines about violence, suffering and the displacement of people, from Afghanistan to Yemen. It is difficult to find a single example of where we are succeeding as an international community in ending conflicts and securing peace. The result can sometimes be an overwhelming sensation of a world out of balance, in which even our best efforts somehow fall short.
Yet the answer is not to feel hopeless or to turn away, but to work in a patient, long-term manner, guided by our values, to chip away at what seem like vast, intractable problems. If we help refugees get an education, they themselves will take on the harder task of rebuilding the countries whose future peace and security is so important to our own. It is the wise as well as morally right course of action.