Syrian refugee crisis risks creating lost generationOctober 14, 2015
(Washington, D.C.) October 14, 2015 — Refugees fleeing Syria’s more than four-year civil war have led to massive overcrowding in public schools in Lebanon and other neighboring countries, leaving hundreds of thousands of Syrian children without access to formal education and threatening their immediate and long-term well-being.
At an Oct. 8, U.S. Congressional briefing titled “Crisis in Syria: Educating Refugee Children,” panelists from Jesuit Refugee Service and other groups said a lack of educational opportunities risks creating a lost generation of Syrians. The briefing was sponsored by Reps. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., and Mike Quigley, D-Ill., co-chairmen of the Congressional International Basic Education Caucus.
“If we ignore education for these children in Syria and the surrounding areas, there will be a whole generation that has zero access to learning, and that is a recipe for further disaster,” said Heather Simpson of Save the Children, who served on the panel.
Increasingly desperate living conditions of refugee families have created stressful home environments that seriously undermine their children’s education progress, said Rachel Walsh Taza, a panelist and JRS’s regional programs officer for the Middle East and North Africa. In Lebanon, for example, more than 70 percent of refugees this year cannot meet their minimum daily food requirements. And in Jordan, more than 85 percent of Syrians are living below the national poverty line of $3.20 a day.
Many children are dropping out of school so they can work to help support their family to meet basic needs, she said. Girls are being forced into early marriage. And transportation and other school-associated costs, such as classroom supplies and uniforms, are too high for many families to afford.
“This has hurt the coping mechanisms of families, and has serious implications for children on their education,” said Taza, who is based in Beirut. “Adults are having a difficult time caring for themselves, much less others, which includes (their) children.”
When refugee children aren’t able to access public education, JRS runs non-formal education programs that follow national curricula and help children improve their basic education skills in an effort to increase their chances of being enrolled in formal education institutions in the future.
Taza said programs that have been effective in engaging students include drama, arts, sports and other recreational activities that help children gain a sense of normalcy and help develop socialization skills.
“On the ground, when we see children going from not having the opportunity to access education to having a safe space (to learn), we really see them flourish,” she said. “We can see tangible changes, you can really see a life changing before your eyes.”
Mark Engman, a panelist with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, said the Syria conflict is destroying “the psychological infrastructure” of Syrian children.
“There is still a perception among some humanitarians … that education is not a life-saving response. And that is something that we need to change,” he said. “Once you get past those really life and death situations and are looking at broader responses, education has got to be in there with lifesaving responses. And it’s not in the minds of a lot of humanitarian donors.”
Syrian children in the region who aren’t in school are at greater risk of prostitution, child labor, trafficking, sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and a myriad of other risky – and often deadly – scenarios, said panelist Kolleen Bouchane of A World at School.
“It is a fact that education in a safe place to learn can save (refugee children’s) lives,” she said. “That’s the moral imperative.”
Simpson added that young people who don’t have access to education are at risk of joining militias as a way to support their families.
“Making sure that children have the opportunity to learn is critical to give them hope for the future,” she said. “And I think we still have work to do to change that mind-set as well.”
But ensuring that Syrian refugee children have access to quality education not only is an immediate humanitarian need but also is a strategic move that enhances the prospects of long-term peace and stability in Syria and the Middle East, the panel said.
Syria’s civil war is at risk of depriving the country of the educated future leaders it will need once the conflict is over, said the panelists, who pressed the international community – including the U.S. government – to beef up educational aid for Syrian refugees.
“What’s at risk is nothing less than the entire stability of the region, Bouchane said.
The Global Campaign for Education-U.S. Chapter, a broad-based coalition of more than 80 members, including JRS/USA, echoed these sentiments, saying it has “serious concerns” about the lack of access to education in conflict areas such as Syria. It also has called on the U.S. government to increase its financial and political support to address this issue.
“Education is both life-saving and life sustaining,” said an October statement by the group, which is dedicated to ensuring universal quality education for all children. “In the midst of destruction, violence, and instability, school is a place of learning and opportunity, a sanctuary for healing and health, and a haven of normalcy and hope for the future.
“Neglecting their right to education undermines not only their future, but also the future of their societies.”
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