Broken promises for children of Syria

Kevin Watkins

FOUR years ago, Mohammed Kosha and his family fled their home in the town of Darya, a suburb of Damascus, to escape relentless bombardment by Syrian armed forces. Having already lost a year of primary education in his hometown, where it was simply too dangerous to attend school, he then spent another year out of the classroom when the family arrived in Lebanon, where they now reside.
Mohammed’s life changed when Lebanon’s government opened the country’s public schools to refugees. Classes were not only crowded; they were also conducted in English, meaning that he would have to learn a new language. But Mohammed seized the opportunity to learn, and threw himself into his studies. Last month, against all odds, he scored the second-highest marks in Lebanon’s Brevet secondary-school exam. And he is not done yet.
Mohammed knows that education is the key to building a better future. In his words, “Learning gives us hope.” If only world leaders had even a fraction of his wisdom. There have been some encouraging signals. At a meeting in London in February, international donors recognized the importance of education for refugees, promising to get Syria’s entire refugee children into school by the end of 2017. They even pledged $1.4 billion to achieve that goal.
It was an ambitious promise to a group of highly vulnerable children. Today, about 1 million Syrian refugee children aged 5 to 17 — roughly half the total — are out of school. And most of those who are in school will drop out before starting their secondary education. In the space of a single primary-school generation, Syria has suffered what may be the greatest education reversal in history. Enrollment rates for the country’s children are now well below the regional average for sub-Saharan Africa.
But now, just six months later, the promise of education for all refugees is about to be broken, dashing the hopes of millions of Syrians. Just 39 percent of the $662 million in urgent education aid sought by UN humanitarian agencies this year has been funded. And as documented in a new Theirworld report, only a fraction of the $1.4 billion pledged in London has been delivered. As the international community shirks its responsibilities, Syria’s neighbours have continued to make extraordinary efforts to address the crisis. Lebanon, Jordan and (to a lesser extent) Turkey have opened up their public schools to Syrian refugees.
But these countries’ education systems, which were strained even before the crisis, cannot handle the burden that they are being forced to shoulder. Syrian refugees now comprise one-third of all Lebanese public school students. This is like the American primary school system suddenly having to absorb all of Mexico’s children. There are simply not enough teachers, classrooms or textbooks to deliver decent educations to the refugee children. The February conference was supposed to produce solutions that would ease the burden on Syria’s neighbours. Host-country governments did their part, preparing in advance their plans for delivering universal education to refugee children. They then worked with donors to develop comprehensive strategies for reaching all out-of-school children and raising the quality of education.
Yet, with the international community having failed to hold up its end of the bargain, progress has not just stalled; it could be reversed. More than 80,000 Syrian refugees now in schools in Lebanon are at risk of losing their places. The human consequences of the education crisis among Syrian refugees are impossible to miss. They are apparent in the growing army of child labourers picking vegetables in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley or working at garment factories in Turkey, where a half-million refugees are out of school. They are also reflected in the continuing flow of refugee families making the perilous journey to Europe, driven by the hope that their children will have educational opportunities there. Yet many European governments continue to invest in razor wire and detention centres rather than in schools and teachers.
Ultimately, though, a credible response to the refugee education crisis must involve a fairer approach to burden-sharing. Governments should review the promises they made at the London conference. And they should recall Nelson Mandela’s dictum: “Promises to children should never be broken.” The writer is executive director of the Overseas Development Institute.
— Courtesy: The Japan Times

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