Youth Perspectives

Why we must act now to educate Syria’s refugee children

Gordon Brown
United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education; World Health Organization Ambassador for Global Health Financing, The Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown
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As donor countries gather in Washington to help with the endless tragedy of Syria, another awful milestone is being reached. Nearly one in four children in neighbouring Lebanon are now refugees.

And if a humanitarian crisis can only be judged by sheer numbers then could this be one of the worst of all time? 10,000 children killed, 14million children affected. No end in sight.

And we have watched it happen. For four years now the world has blankly stared as this horror unfolds, image after image, clip after clip of refugee columns snaking across borders, fear and despair etched on the faces of children bombed out of their schools and forced instead to work or marry early. For many girls and boys, day-to-day survival is their life.

The magnitude of this tragedy should be unfathomable, the numbers affected by the horrors of war—displaced and forced out of their homes—growing not by thousands but by millions year after year. Yet still it rages on.

More than 14million children – the most neglected and forgotten of victims – have been affected by this brutal conflict in Syria and much of Iraq. Three million of them have been out of school for years now, forfeiting opportunity and hope. They will never go back into learning and an entire generation’s potential is being squandered.

And nowhere is this deprivation more apparent than in Lebanon, a small country troubled by decades of conflict and where one in four children in the country is now a Syrian refugee.

Yes, it is relentlessly bleak but there is a sliver of hope.

For the 500,000 refugee children now living in Lebanon—a small country troubled by decades of conflict – there exists a chance to reclaim their future. In a an unprecedented commitment, the Government of Lebanon has developed a plan in collaboration with the international community to provide access to quality learning opportunities for more than 470,000 Syrian and underprivileged Lebanese children by 2016, generously opening its public schools and commiting its teachers to an extended day double shift teaching arrangement named the “Reaching All Children with Education in Lebanon” – or RACE – strategy.

The implementation of this strategy is a race – a race against time and the untold damage that could be inflicted upon children if we fail to provide them with an education.

We have made progress but it has been too slow. This year, 110,000 Syrian school-aged children will be enrolled in Lebanese public schools, leaving more than 400,000 children out of school. Already operational, the RACE strategy can accommodate thousands more if fully funded but it cannot be fully executed until we form a delivery and financing pact between the government and the international community.

That is why this week global leaders will assemble in Washington D.C. during the Spring Meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to move forward in securing the right to education for these children which is well within reach.

Borge Brende, the Minister of Foreign Affairs from Norway, is championing this critical issue and has agreed to co-host this vital meeting. The international children’s charity Theirworld has published a report this week highlighting what can be done to achieve the ambition of universal education in Lebanon. Leaders must heed, with a fierce urgency, the opportunities laid forth to accelerate progress in delivering education.

First, we need the donor community to come through with predictable financing. Two-thirds of UNICEF’s education funding has come from two generous donors – the EU and Germany – but we must do more. Financial support from the international community has consistently fallen short, leaving the Lebanese government with a $163million dollar funding gap this year.

Second, we need agreements with the government to form a project management unit in the ministry, develop a regulatory framework for non-formal education to complement the formal education programs and to eliminate barriers to access but setting up a seamless enrolment process for this upcoming school year where we can hit key education targets.

In four months, a new school year will start in Lebanon and we must form a delivery and financing pact to restore hope and opportunity for Syrian refugees and the Lebanese host community.

If we continue to fail these children, the consequences of our inaction for young people will haunt us for generations to come.

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Author: Gordon Brown is a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the United Nations Special Envoy For Global Education.

Image: Syrian refugee children study in a make-shift classroom at an informal settlement in Zahle in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon. REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir

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