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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Education is the key to the future for dislocated Syrian children

With international aid for Syria half the amount pledged in Brussels last year, children's charity founder Sarah Brown reminds the world of its promise to get refugee children in schools

A Syrian refugee girl sits in a classroom at a Lebanese public school at Kaitaa village in north Lebanon. Hussein Malla / AP
A Syrian refugee girl sits in a classroom at a Lebanese public school at Kaitaa village in north Lebanon. Hussein Malla / AP

Just over two years ago, world leaders met at a conference in London and promised to provide the funding to get all Syrian refugee children into schools by the end of 2017. More money was pledged that day than on any other in history.

But two years on from that promise, more than 680,000 children are still out of school and the aid to education dropped last year.

Not only has the funding dropped but there is a lack of transparency regarding financing for education, making it impossible to see how much is committed in total each year. Much of the funding has arrived late in the year, further complicating planning in host countries.

Children who aren’t attending school are most at risk of child marriage and child labour. We hear of girls being forced to marry far too young and of children doing backbreaking labour in fields and textile factories.

We want all of those children back in school, not just to learn but because it is also a safe place for them. It allows them to be children again.

Through the #YouPromised campaign launched by Theirworld, the children’s charity I launched in 2002, we aim to remind world leaders of that promise and keep their pledge to fund education for Syrian children. I was in Brussels this week, where 86 countries gathered for a new EU-UN conference for Syria and the surrounding region.

The campaign - backed by thousands of supporters - helped to get education high on the agenda of world leaders attending the conference. Christos Stylianides, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, said: “I am happy to see that education features as a top priority at the Brussels conference. Education saves lives, protects children and empowers new generations.”

Governments and other donors pledged $4.4 billion in humanitarian aid to Syria in 2018 and historically, around 10% of all funding has gone to education. Announcing the commitments the UN and EU issued a joint statement saying: “These efforts will aim to secure quality education for all children.”

But our best calculation show that the pledges amount to only about half what is needed to get every refugee child in school - with 689,000 children in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan still not receiving an education.

Together we have secured a commitment to children’s education - but we need to secure the whole amount before the next school term or we risk seeing children continue to beexluded from school.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale and horror of the ongoing conflict, helplessly watching television news bulletins reporting the daily reality of bombs and bullets aimed at homes, schools and hospitals.

As endless images of war and destruction appear before us, so many just switch off. We cannot bear to see the constant suffering and feel completely disempowered to make a difference.

But right at the heart of it, amid the mayhem and turmoil, there is incredible work being carried out in the countries surrounding Syria, in particular in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Education has and always will have the power to change everything.

What many people believe is impossible - getting every refugee child back to school - we now know is possible. We have seen it. Now we really need to shift the global mindset from what might be possible to believing it is probable.

If you give a child an education, even teaching him or her to read and write, it instantly gives them a belief in themselves that they didn’t have beforehand. It creates ambition.

We owe it to ourselves to be the ones that believe in the children enough to pledge them money and put them into education.

The conference underlined the need to reach all children and young people. They will one day have a key role in the recovery and rebuilding of the region and will need the necessary education and skills to do so. If they don’t have that now, when it does become possible for them to return to Syria, we have to ask what skills they will go back with.

It is the youth of today who hold the hope for the future of Syria. If they do not receive an education, there is no hope for Syria in the future.

But there are signs of hope. Schools in Lebanon are running two shifts a day to ensure refugee children receive an education, with teachers and education officials working round the clock and non-governmental organisations working on informal learning.

Each day a child goes to school, there is a promise of a better future. Those are the reasons we are running this campaign calling on leaders to fund education for Syrian children. It is one battle we know we have to win.

There are costed, detailed plans drawn up by the UN, host governments, local organisations and international partners that would see every refugee child in school if the funding that was promised by world leaders at a major summit in London is finally delivered.

While we all know the priority must be to end the war in Syria, history also tells us that the average time a child is a refugee is up to 17 years. That amounts to their entire school age. The children who have fled their homes and schools deserve a future.

Education is the number one investment in a child’s future. For every Syrian girl, going back to school opens up her world to choices. It can be the difference between hope and despair, the gap between knowledge and ignorance and the divide between those who are equipped to rebuild their country and those who will become aid-dependent.

So as world leaders leave Brussels, we hope they remember their promise and scrutinise their actual commitments as we will be tracking the delivery.

Sarah Brown is president of the children's charity Theirworld