Angela Merkel got it wrong: crying refugee girl’s wish is for an education

A World at School, Girls' education

“I want to study” says Reem just before she breaks down in tears in front of the leader of one of the richest and most powerful countries on earth. The response from German Chancellor Angela Merkel is blunt and to the point: “You’re a nice person” but “politics is sometimes hard”.  

The exchange was captured live on German TV and ended in Merkel going over to comfort Reem and awkwardly “stroking” the Palestinian teenager who was visibly upset.

Merkel’s handling of this situation has received much criticism on social media over the past 24 hours with the hashtag #Merkelstreichelt (Merkel strokes) trending on Twitter.  

Watching the film again I believe that Angela Merkel misunderstood the question – she answered a question about immigration when she was actually confronted with a question about education and a young woman’s fears that without a chance to study she would not have a future.

Perhaps Reem loves her home in Germany, where she has awaited news of her deportation for four years. But that’s not what she said – she said she wants to study. She said this is a real wish and a goal she wants to attain.

This short exchange sums up why the global campaign to get every child into school will only achieve its goals if it continues to build as a civil rights struggle and not as an act of charity. 

Angela Merkel comforts Reem live on German TV

An act of charity allows wealthy countries and individuals to decide which child gets an education and which one doesn’t. Which child is given a hope and a future and which child has their hopes crushed, on this occasion live on television.    

But Angela Merkel is right on one thing – it’s politics. It is not simply by chance that 62 million girls and female adolescents across the world are out of school. Girls are out of school for a number of reasons but primarily because of the policy and political choices made by governments.

Choices that have resulted in a decline in aid to basic education by 22% between 2010 and 2013. Choices that meant that last year only 1% of all humanitarian aid went to education.

Decisions by the German government to cut its aid to basic education since 2011. A choice by governments in countries where children are out of school to underinvest their domestic resources in education. Decisions that have meant that the number of children out of school around the world is on the rise – up to 59 million boys and girls of primary school age.

In a recent speech, United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown highlighted the injustice by saying: “When you take all money spent on education around the world, whether it is aid or domestic resources through taxation and other sources, then the average amount of money spent on the education of child in sub-Saharan Africa is only $80 per year. Compare that with the $8000 per year we spend in public funds on education per child in Norway, the UK or US.”

News channels report that Reem’s family have been waiting four years for a decision about their deportation from Germany to a camp in Lebanon. Sending Reem to a country already hosting the lion’s share of refugee children means her chances of a good quality education are even slimmer if the international community doesn’t step up.

Students at El Shayah Second Mixed Public School in Beirut

Lebanon is currently doing everything possible to deal with a huge increase in the number of refugees coming from Syria as well as Iraq – the recent increase in the number of refugees amounts to more than a fifth of Lebanon’s current population entering into the country in the last four years.  

Around 400,000 refugee children are out of school in Lebanon, due to the lack of donor funding. There is also a funding crisis for UNRWA – the UN agency responsible for providing education to Palestinian refugees – that could result in the closure of 700 schools, affecting 500,000 children.

Politics is hard and it’s hard on the poorest and most vulnerable children. Children I met in Beirut recently also broke down in tears saying they haven’t been to school in four years after they fled their villages and schools due to the war.

Every child has the right to an education, no matter who they are or where they are born. And young women around the world, like Reem, are courageously fighting for themselves and others to go to school and escape child labour, early marriage and deeper poverty.

This is not about children being handed something special. This is about their fundamental human right. The right they shouldn’t have to ask for but the right they demand.

Reem is correct to say: “I have goals like anyone else”. That’s exactly the point. No child should be denied an education because they are Palestinian. Or because they are a refugee. Or because they are a girl. Or because they have a disability. Or because they are from socially-excluded communities such as Dalits … The list goes on. And no child should be humiliated when saying: “I want to study.”

Nothing will change while we give world leaders the power to pick which child gets an education and which does not. Young people need to be empowered and supported to realise their rights.

Last week the Norwegian government hosted the Oslo Education Summit with world leaders in attendance. The platform was given to Hellen Griberg, a 23-year-old who is one of 500 Global Youth Ambassadors for education supported by A World at School in 85 countries. They are courageously leading campaigns and civil rights struggles to get girls and boys into school.

She brought with her the #UpForSchool Petition with eight million names. Names collected by young people going door to door, from churches and mosques, to schools and universities.

Hellen delivered the petition and then said: “But I am also here today as one woman. I was born in Zambia. Raised here in Norway. I was given an education. I was given hope.

“A hope that is denied to 62 million girls, desperate to learn. Education gives girls freedom and HOPE. We must have hope. This petition demands action from you. To make sure that every girl is in school.”

It is time to support these young leaders around the world and support them in their own liberation struggle. Not out of charity but because it is right. It is Reem’s right to get a quality education.

You can back every child’s right to an education by signing the #UpForSchool Petition.

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