Malala Skypes with Syrian Refugee Girls

She backs Gordon Brown plan to reschool 300,000 children

Education campaigner Malala Yousafzai and UN Special Envoy Gordon Brown yesterday offered hope to Syrian teenagers forced from their country by unveiling a detailed plan to find 300,000 school places for refugee children exiled to Lebanon.

As new figures show that the number of Syrian girls and boys across the border is expected to reach half a million by the end of 2013, A World at School and Mr Brown revealed a $500 million, three-year plan to provide emergency education and food for displaced children in Lebanese schools.  Covering a third of Syria's child refugees, it would be the biggest single humanitarian initiative in the crisis so far.  And in the next 48 hours Malala and Mr Brown will launch a worldwide petition on to persuade leaders to back it.

Yesterday, in Skype exchanges, Malala heard refugee twins Zahra and Om Kolthoum Katou talk of their dream to return to school and become doctors. Malala told them: “I totally support you. You are very brave. I believe that you will get your education, that you will go to school – and that no one can stop you. One day you will be my doctor and I will be your patient.”

The twin sisters were forced from their home in Aleppo and have been in Lebanon for a year.

The 15-year-olds, who were without education for more than six months, told Malala: “Our school in Aleppo shut. There was fighting and bombing around the building and we could no longer go there to learn. We were so scared.  It was a terrible situation but we want to continue our education – we don’t want it to stop.”

The girls are now attending catch-up classes run by local organisations supported by UNICEF.  “We are dealing with an education emergency within a spiralling humanitarian crisis,” said Annamaria Laurini, UNICEF Representative in Lebanon.  “Syrian children have lost everything, including the right to go to school, and we need to do everything we can to give them back the chance of a future.”

“In Lebanon, UNICEF and partner organisations are running lessons in public schools, community centres and tented settlements.  But much more needs to be done to help more children,” says Ms. Laurini.  “Getting children back to learning, even if it’s just for a few hours a day, protects them, gives them hope, and keeps them on track to as normal and fulfilling a life as possible.”

The special calls were arranged by Mr Brown, in partnership with A World at School, UNICEF and Education International, who are supporting the girls.  Speaking afterwards, Mr Brown called for a new initiative, Education without Borders, to bring emergency schooling to children forced into refugee camps by conflict – starting with the Syrian crisis.

“I’m so pleased that we were able to connect Malala – who has already inspired so many millions – with these brave young girls and I know her words will have brought hope to Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

“Under a practical plan developed by A World at School and written by Kevin Watkins of the Overseas Development Institute, many of the 300,000 Syrians exiled in Lebanon could start going to school in weeks. 

“The plan requires the international community – which currently funds only two per cent of schooling needs in humanitarian crises – to contribute an additional $500million over three years.

“Solutions such as schools working on double shifts, Syrian refugee teachers hired in colleges and providing school meals – if properly funded – could make a massive difference.”

The plans have initial support from the Lebanese government who will use their schools to deliver extra education and they will be formalised during a meeting at the UN General Assembly on September 23.

Malala, who on Friday collected an international peace award at The Hague, will work with A World at School to ensure young people across the globe are pressing international leaders to deliver education even in the most troubled and dangerous places.


For more photos of the Skype conversation go here

Photo credit: UNICEF / Ramzi Haidar