Gordon Brown, a former prime minister of Britain, is a United Nations special envoy for global education.
There is a tiny glimmer of hope amid the ruins of Syria.
Syria’s conflict has produced the world’s biggest refugee crisis since 1945, for which $6.5 billion in international aid has been sought. Polio has reemerged, and there are shortages of clean water, food and medical supplies.
Yet an emerging plan would cut through mountains of red tape and ensure that, within weeks, as many as 400,000 exiled Syrian boys and girls could go back to school.
Children are the almost-invisible victims of armed conflict. Scores of Syrian boys and girls were killed just before Christmas in the regime’s 10-day air offensive against rebel areas around Aleppo. Bodies of youngsters were found piled up after the May massacre outside the city of Baniyas. After the chemical attack in August, rows of children’s bodies lay under white sheets.
Half of the 6.5 million Syrians forced out of their homes are children. Four years ago, Syria was close to universal education. Now thousands of schools have been bombed, burned out, turned from educational establishments into military outposts or simply closed.
Some lucky families — often those who paid traffickers to get them out — have managed to secure asylum. There are, for instance, 15,000 Syrians in Sweden. Yet nearly 1 million of the 2 million who have left Syria are refugees in neighboring Lebanon, and 400,000 of those are school-age children.
For decades, getting children of conflict back into school has been almost an afterthought. Typically, about 1 percent of humanitarian aid goes to education; last year it was 1.5 percent, according to the International Network for Education in Emergencies. In emergencies where resources are scarce, the urgent need for food, shelter and medical supplies takes priority.
In Syria, only one dollar in every six required to educate children has been funded. And yet the average conflict lasts 10 years and a typical camp — and period of exile — for displaced people exists for 17 years.
Every day without a teacher and every month — and year — out of a classroom drastically reduces the likelihood that children will finish their schooling. The result? Entire communities go uneducated and become permanently disadvantaged. Already, some have deemed the boys and girls of Syria a lost generation. Their childhoods are vanishing, their lives put on hold. Some have become child laborers, often selling goods and services on the streets. Others have seen their relatives murdered or assaulted.
Young people engulfed in violence need more than nutrition and medicine: They need hope. Providing education makes the strongest possible statement that young people have a future worth preparing for and that, even in the most horrendous circumstances, it makes sense to plan for a time beyond conflict and seek to triumph over despair.
At first, Lebanon may seem an unlikely place to establish a new children’s right to schooling. Syrian refugees have become a quarter of the Lebanese population. Fifty thousand more cross the border every month.
Lebanon’s political cleavages run deep, with some of the population supporting the Assad regime and some backing the Syrian opposition. Because of widespread opposition to refugee camps, there is only one formal camp. Refugees are dispersed across 1,500 locations. Some 200,000 are homeless, with the majority of the rest crammed into makeshift accommodations — flats, hovels and huts — paying exorbitant rents.
Ironically, the absence of camps and the widespread dispersal of child refugees favors the use of existing schools across Lebanon. The plan, crafted by UNICEF and the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in conjunction with the Lebanese government, would open schools in a double-shift system beyond current hours. For just $196 million a year, each of the 400,000 Syrian child refugees in Lebanon would be offered a place at a school or college.
The need is urgent. Tensions between refugees and host communities are mounting over classroom seats. There are logistical obstacles: Syrian children have traditionally been taught in Arabic, but Lebanon’s schools use English and French. Still, this plan would provide stability and help children rebuild their shattered lives. Education offers the prospect that, beyond bombs and bullets, there are jobs to train for and futures to contemplate.
One hundred and thirty-three years ago, the principle of life-saving health care in war zones was established through the Red Cross. Forty years ago Doctors Without Borders popularized the notion that casualties of crises, whoever and wherever they are, must have health care. Now it can be the turn of education: the right of children to learn, irrespective of borders.
And if Syrian children can go to school in one of the world’s most unstable regions, so could many more of the 22 million children denied education in other countries with armed conflicts and broken-down regimes. When Lebanon, supported by donors around the world, establishes that the right to education transcends borders, child victims of conflict will never again have to survive in a world without hope.