How the Syrian conflict is robbing children of their education

Children in conflicts, Education in emergencies, Theirworld

Syrian refugee Emel, 18, works as youth volunteer at Harran refugee camp in Turkey Picture: UNICEF/Yurtsever

The images and stories on the news about the war, tragedy, displacement, poverty and suffering resulting from the violence in Syria leave us with a certain picture in our minds.

A picture of poor people – fleeing, displaced, desperate, wounded. The scale of the crisis and the absolute havoc it has wrought is heart-wrenching. And these realities crowd out of our minds the remembrance of a pre-war Syria that was prosperous and stable – a Syria that had a thriving middle class.

We forget that among those displaced, in camps or living as urban refugees in the surrounding countries are entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, bankers, designers.

We don’t think of the kids who are begging or picking up trash or selling trinkets on city streets as students who were in schools and on track to complete their education and have a future livelihood not that long ago. We forget that these people are people like us, people whose lives we can relate to in very real ways.

Four years of violence in Syria has left at least 200,000 dead, 11 million displaced and contributed to the worst refugee and migration crisis since World War II. Among those fleeing the conflict are highly-educated, professional, middle-class families – individuals who had started their own businesses, had professions and were providing for their families, young men and women who had been studying to complete their undergraduate degrees before the crisis, and children who were nearly all in school and learning.

Muhammed, 18, lives in Harran camp – his Syrian home and school were destroyed by bombs Picture: UNICEF/Yurtsever

Before the conflict, the lives led by so many Syrians were strikingly similar to my life. And in the span of a few brutal years, the divergence is drastic.

I am 24 – only two years out of college. When I entered my university six years ago, many Syrians my age were also beginning their college education. We were on the same trajectory toward being highly educated, starting a profession, being able to flourish and provide for ourselves.

Enter the Syrian war. Suddenly those who were on the same path as me have lost their homes, been forced to flee, have lost friends and family as their homeland descends deeper into violence and chaos with no end in sight.

Suddenly, those who would have completed their bachelor’s degrees at the same time I was completing mine are out of school, living in the surrounding countries where they face barriers to entering into foreign universities, from credits not transferring to the inability to obtain a visa to study somewhere else.

Instead of entering the workforce as professionals with their degrees, they have either had to begin their undergraduate coursework all over again or give up on it and earn a living in any way they can. After years of being in this place of uncertainty, unable to go back to the Syria they knew, facing overwhelming obstacles to moving forward in host countries, many have run out of options.

Fatma, aged eight, lives in a refugee camp in Lebanon after fleeing her home city of Aleppo Picture: UNICEF/Romenzi

Those who would be my peers are descending into such desperation that they are placing themselves into the hands of people smugglers to get into the European Union for a chance to start a new life, unable to see any other way forward.

But it’s not only those in higher education that are losing out because of the war. Prior to the outbreak of conflict, Syria had achieved nearly universal education and literacy rates reached more than 90%.

Syrian children displaced by conflict are being shut out of the access to the education that they once enjoyed. Most of the 2.8 million Syrian children who are now out of school were in school before the war. They were learning. They were on track to complete their education, join the workforce, earn a livelihood and send their kids to school.

And now they are breadwinners – labouring in horrid conditions in agricultural fields, as domestic servants or, worse, trafficked into the commercial sex trade. And now young boys – who can’t return to their school building because it has been bombed or repurposed as rebel group’s prison or torture facility – are joining violent groups as fighters and suicide bombers instead of joining the professional class or getting ready to go to college.

And now children remaining in ISIL-held territories in Syria are being forced into ISIL-led schools that teach a radical curriculum (of violence and hatred). And now young girls who used to study are being married off by parents afraid that their unmarried daughters are at greater risk of abuse and sexual violence in the insecure refugee communities in which they live.

Rokan, six, and Mahmoud, five, play at kindergarten in Syrian city of Tartous after being displaced from Aleppo Picture: UNICEF/Youngmeyer

All these children, who were in school and on track, now have very poor prospects of ever returning to school. If these 2.8 million Syrian children remain unable to complete their education an entire generation is at risk of being “lost” – of falling back into cycles of poverty, exploitation, marginalisation, ill-health – unable to cope or rebuild their families and lives post-conflict. And these consequences will likely reverberate across the region for generations to come.

There is a beacon of hope in all of this and it is that providing opportunities for Syrian children to resume and complete their education can have a tremendous impact for good. Education preserves the past achievements that were made and provides a way to move forward again. It can help give children hope, protection from exploitation, a future.

This is why commitments like the Global Humanitarian Platform and Fund for Education in Emergencies promised in early July at the Oslo Summit is of such vital importance. It’s challenging to reach these children, but they must be reached.

They have a right to be reached. They have a right to learn, to study, and to succeed. They have a right to the tools that will allow them to rebuild, to move forward, to begin to dream again. They have a right to a life after a disaster.

Let’s not let this generation be lost. Let’s not allow thousands upon thousands of Syrian children to miss out on opportunities to learn, to rebuild, to dream of a better future.

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