January 02, 2019

"If we could get everyone to focus on education, we could solve the world’s problems"

Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait, talks to Online Editor Ewan Watt about the mission to deliver crucial learning to millions of children caught up in humanitarian disasters.

In a small, simple office, the future of millions of children is being discussed. Not just any children. Some of the most unfortunate and marginalised youngsters in the world - victims of cruel conflicts and devastating disasters.

Behind a desk sits Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait - a fund set up to deliver education in humanitarian emergencies. On the desk is a paper bag containing her lunch. She apologises, saying she’s just back from a meeting at the United Nations Secretariat and hasn't eaten.

But the food is left untouched as we talk. Sherif has so much she wants to say. She is passionate, focused and gritty. But warm too. She delivers her thoughts clearly and forcefully.

“We would like the whole world to work on education,” she says. “If we could get the entire UN and the entire EU and the entire World Bank - everyone - just to focus on education, we think we could solve the world’s problems.”

The challenge for Education Cannot Wait - she calls it ECW - is enormous. The 75 million children are those aged three to 18 whose early learning and education is disrupted by wars and natural disasters in 35 crisis-torn countries like South Sudan, Yemen and Bangladesh.

Children like Rabidullah, a 12-year-old from Afghanistan. Uprooted by fighting last year, he moved to a displacement camp.

“I suffered. I lost my home, my classmates and my teacher, and was left without a school, class or books,” he said. 

One in four of the world’s school-aged children live in countries affected by emergencies. Most of the money from humanitarian aid goes on food, water, shelter and protection - and education gets a paltry 2%. 

Not getting traumatised children back into school quickly after a crisis leaves them at risk of child labour, early marriage, recruitment by armed groups and many forms of exploitation and violence.

That’s why Education Cannot Wait was launched in 2016 - to respond quickly to these emergencies. It aims to reach eight million children with quality education in the next three years.

Rabidullah is one of them. With funding from ECW, a new community-based school is being established in the Shaheedan camp.

His mother said: “I thought that our children’s future had been destroyed and lost forever. This programme has revived our hopes and will help build our future.”

In its first year of operations - up to July - ECW delivered education to over 650,000 children in 14 crisis-hit countries and was on track to reach its target of one million by the end of 2018. 

New projects announced in recent months include:

  • Building schools in refugee camps and host communities in Ethiopia
  • Support for Rohingya refugees and host community children in Bangladesh
  • Helping Syrian refugees to learn in Lebanon

It's stories like that of Rabidullah which give Swedish-born Sherif hope and confidence that the eight million goal is achievable.

“I think we will reach and exceed our target,” she says. “There is a lot of money in circulation.

"The High-Level Panel Report on Humanitarian Financing presented at the World Humanitarian Summit refers to the world producing $77 trillion in annual GDP. The funding gap for education could be closed.

"We cannot afford to rest"

Not that you can imagine Sherif resting for long. She’s been driven since childhood and has two great causes - education and justice for children, their families and all people affected by armed conflicts and disasters.

“For me, education is one of the most foundational rights to be achieved in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to achieve the Global Goals,” she explains. “So it comes very natural to me to advocate - I don’t like the word fight - and reclaim the right to quality education in its full sense for the most downtrodden people in the world.

“I have also dedicated my life to people enduring armed conflict, children, women, families, refugees, internally displaced and war-affected communities for the past 30 years. 

"That is why I became a human rights lawyer. I wanted to safeguard, protect and advocate for their rights and our universal values. Not only as an advocate but also as a doer - to translate vision into action has been my passion since I graduated from law school in Sweden.”

As well as the highly-publicised wars in Syria and Yemen, there are many "hidden" conflicts affecting the rights of children.

One of those is the Lake Chad crisis. Aisha Mahamadou fled after Boko Haram attacked her Nigerian village and ended up at a refugee camp in Chad.

"Here we have food to eat, we go to school, we play with friends, we feel safe," she said. "When I get older, I would like to become a doctor to look after sick people."

ECW can support children like Aisha by working with Chad's government and a range of partners, including UNICEF and the Jesuit Refugee Service.

Aisha Mahamadou at Dar es Salam refugee camp

Photo credit: ECW

Classrooms have been built, boys and girls have received backpacks and school supplies - and teachers have been hired and trained.

Teachers are crucial to the success of education in emergencies. They also played a major role in helping Yasmine Sherif to become a great champion of education and children’s rights.

“I had two teachers in my life who very much inspired me,” she says. “The first was my mother - and I say that because parents are just as important. Because education starts from the time you are born. That’s where the foundation is made. 

“And then, in co-operation with the school - pre-primary and primary - you need to make sure that there is seamless understanding, value systems, how we teach. 

“My favourite subject at school in Sweden was religion. Some people will look at it as dogma. But not for me. It’s a spiritual dimension.

“I had this wonderful Greek Orthodox teacher and I think he took us to every single religious site possible in Stockholm, where I grew up. When it was the Greek Easter, he took us all to the Greek Orthodox churches. He took us to synagogues. He took us to mosques. He took us to churches.

“He taught us religion from the spiritual core, which is so much needed today - to have tolerance, humanity, the values, the golden rule which is found in all major religions.

"In a way, he carried forward a legacy from my mother because she was very profound and compassionate, had an open mind and a tolerance and taught us about different cultures, religions and the importance of values. That was so beautiful.”

After graduating from law school with specialisation in international human rights and humanitarian law, Sherif joined the UN at 24. 

There followed major roles at three UN agencies and eventually a groundbreaking call for a new global vision in her book The Case for Humanity: An Extraordinary Session, which was launched at the United Nations in 2015 and has since become a best-seller in the UN bookstore.  

That three-decade journey has culminated in her running Education Cannot Wait. She credits campaigning by Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, and Theirworld for helping to make it a reality.

“Leading the whole initiative is a big reason why I felt ‘Wow this is exciting’. Getting to know Theirworld as I came on board has just reinforced that this is what I meant to be doing. Theirworld inspires!

“It’s about how we revolutionise the system to zoom in on education. I like to restructure the ordinary systems. I love moving things around, improving them and taking them to new heights.”

As if to emphasise the point that “standard” thinking won’t solve the biggest problems, Sherif admits she wasn’t even sure about the name of the organisation.

“The regular bureaucratic mindset would not have created Education Cannot Wait,” she says. “Having done some creative things in my life - like my book on the case for humanity - even I was like ... Education Cannot Wait? That sounds too odd to be serious.

“And I realise it takes a lot of courage to have a title like that. Now I realise that it shows the impatience with the world.

“I have worked in the humanitarian development nexus almost as many years as I have been around in crisis countries. So I have that ingrained inside me and believe that you cannot just have a humanitarian approach or just a development approach to crisis. You need to bring them together. Everything we do is about connecting the dots.

“And then because I worked so many years in the system, I know what it has gone through, the policies and players - we have to come to an end of silos, we have to come to an end of competition.  We can't go further in that direction.

Yasmine Sherif visits some of the children being helped by Education Cannot Wait

Photo credit: Yasmine Sherif / Twitter

"We need to co-operate. We need to bring NGOs together, we need UN agencies to work with host governments, the EU, the World Bank and closer to the people we serve. 

“At the end of the day it’s about safeguarding those left behind, the most forgotten. And no one can do it alone.”

That leads us to discuss how ECW can work alongside and with the other big acronyms in the field - GPE (the Global Partnership for Education that works with low-income countries to improve their education systems) and IFFEd (the planned International Finance Facility for Education, which will unlock $10 billion to help millions of children into school).

“There is place for us all. There are enough children and youth entitled to an education to make us all relevant and needed. Education Cannot Wait has its specific role in emergencies and crisis.

“As Amina Mohammed, the UN Deputy Secretary-General, said in one of the high-level meetings on IFFEd, Education Cannot Wait jumps in wherever there is a conflict.

“The worst that happens when you have a great idea and you know where you want to go with the vision are the blockages. 

"Education Cannot Wait was conceived as a disruptive fund meant to change the way we work to be more effective and bring education to the centre of the international aid response in crisis.

Contributions and pledges to ECW by donors, as of December 2018

“Working with Gordon is inspiring. He has not only vision but he also translates it into action. Only a few can do that and I wish more tried. I know well how too much bureaucracy can hold you back and you have to build a team where everyone is on the same wavelength.

“Now today when I look back, I see barriers there may have been, whether bureaucratic or systemic - but gradually they dissolve. I’m a pretty stubborn person. I take some punches as I go along. But you just cope.

“But even all this isn’t enough. We speak about 75 million children at ECW. But there are hundreds of millions of children and youth not accessing education and that suffering that comes with it, and that that destruction - none of us can afford to be protective or in silos.”

Sherif is a ball of energy. Whether it’s at a UN meeting or sitting in this office at the UNICEF headquarters in Manhattan. I ask if she’s always this passionate about her work or does she have a public persona?

“I wouldn’t know how to put on a public face,” she says. “Not everyone appreciates passion. But what you see is what you get. 

“My husband, who went to a British boarding school, only a few can read him. He says you can read me as an open book. I just have a very deep sense of passion and a deep sense of feeling and emotion. 

“This is how I was born - maybe because I’m half-Egyptian. They are known to be close to their feelings. I guess it’s what’s inside you, the DNA. But it’s there. And I am a person who is driven. And if I don’t feel the drive I will not do the job."

When it’s time for me to leave, she thanks me for coming and calls me “my dear”. I go to shake her hand. 

“I show emotions,” she says. “I have to hug you.”

You get the feeling she’d like to hug every single child affected by crisis and tell them that help is on the way.

Jospin's story

Jospin, 13, at a temporary learning space in Kaga Bandoro displacement site, Central African Republic

Photo credit: ECW

Jospin, 13, has lived in the Kaga Bandoro Internal Displacement Camp in the Central African Republic for nearly four years ago. When his family fled from violence, he had never been to school.

Now Jospin is getting an education - with support from Education Cannot Wait and the backing of a broad international coalition including the Norwegian Refugee  Council, INTERSOS, UNICEF and Plan International.

Jospins says: "I am from a village 17 kilometres away. We fled the village on foot. We sought refuge on a church site, then on the internally displaced persons site when the church was attacked. 

"I had never been to school before becoming an internally displaced person.

"I started going to school for the first time here and I love it. Once I was sick and I went to the hospital and this big man, the doctor, treated me. He was very kind. 

"I have decided to become a doctor, too, so I can help my people one day.”

About Yasmine Sherif

Born in Stockholm in 1964 to a Swedish mother and Egyptian father. Graduated from Stockholm University in 1987 with a Master of Laws, specialised in international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

Worked with the UN in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Balkans, Sudan and the Middle East, as well as at UN headquarters in New York and Geneva. At the refugee agency UNHCR she led the first repatriation of refugees back to Bosnia following the Dayton Peace agreement in 1995. 

At the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), she coordinated the Protection of Civilians agenda in the late 1990s. At the UN Development Programme (UNDP), she founded and led the UN’s largest rule-of-law assistance programme that helped over 30 crisis-countries.

An Adjunct Professor at Long Island University, lecturing on international law and international politics. Co-Founder of the Global Center for Justice and Humanity. Author of The Case for Humanity: An Extraordinary Session, published in 2015.

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