x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Syria's children are in desperate need of educational aid

The UAE could play a leadership role in ensuring that Syrian children have access to something often overlooked during times of conflict: education

The UAE is increasingly viewed as an important player in the field of humanitarian aid, particularly in situations of crisis. Since 1971, the UAE has given more than Dh225 billion in foreign aid to more than 90 countries. This trend continued at last week's Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference, where the UAE received praise for its pledge of Dh1.1 billion to assist Syrian refugees.

Syria's refugees are in desperate need of safe shelters, medical assistance, food and water. The UAE's money, which it will distribute outside of the UN framework, will go a long way in providing these basic services.

But the UAE could also play a leadership role in ensuring that Syrian children have access to something often overlooked during times of conflict: education.

In their recent report Childhood Under Fire, the UK-based agency Save The Children detailed the effect of the two-year crisis on Syrian children. Young people have been uprooted from their homes, and witnessed death and destruction. Many are separated from their families. Syrian children have experienced tragedies that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Without the much-needed physical protection and psychosocial counselling offered to refugee children in schools, Syria's displaced young people will not be able to cope. As reported by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there have been cases of children taking their own lives in refugee camps, overwhelmed by the stress. Others, especially those who are not protected by a parent, are in danger of being subjected to harm, exploitation and abduction.

For many of these children, the act of going to a safe school every day could help save their lives.

In any war zone, refugee children and their parents look to schools for a sense of hope. Many refugee children do go on to build very successful lives and they often cite education as one of the main reasons they could do so despite their horrific ordeals.

Consider the case of John Dau, who spent seven years of his childhood as one of Sudan's "lost boys", crossing three African countries on foot as part of a large group of orphaned children fleeing violence and exploitation. "At the time, we saw no future for ourselves ... Life in the camp was like waiting for your grave," he told the UN. "There was often not enough food in the camp, and sometimes no security but there was this one thing - education. It meant everything."

John is now a graduate of Syracuse University in New York.

This window of hope is small and closing for too many young Syrian refugees (Save the Children estimates there are as many as 500,000 Syrian children registered as refugees, or waiting to be registered).

For Syrian child refugees, not only has their education been disrupted but they also have to overcome the trauma they faced and adjust to new, and often harsh, conditions. Many of these refugees do not yet have access to schools and the longer they are not in school, the less likely it is that they will go back.

Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are offering some access to public schools and UN agencies are trying to provide schooling in refugee camps. These efforts have not, however, been able to meet demand as more refugees pour in at rates of 5,000 a day. Many of those with children leave refugee camps or congregate in them depending on whether the place is able to offer education for their children.

Inside Syria, the educational crisis is dire. Money is needed for prefabricated classrooms, uniforms and books. Since the civil war began at least 2,400 schools have been destroyed, and across the country, parents are reluctant to send their children to schools that have been targeted by armed forces. Unicef is asking donors for $20 million to provide the most basic education assistance inside Syria; so far it has received only $3 million.

But funding is also desperately needed to pay school fees and expand services for refugee children in host countries. Education, health care and other services are stretched to the limit in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

On September 24 last year, world leaders endorsed a UN General Assembly resolution on "the right to education in emergency situations", and a call to action to increase aid to education to 4 per cent of humanitarian aid budgets from the current 2 per cent. Yet these resolutions will be meaningful only if they produce results for children.

The right to education for refugee children in particular is not new; it is built into the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1951 Refugee Convention. Unfortunately, this right continues to elude the international aid community.

According to the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, some 28 million children currently living in countries or regions affected by conflict are not receiving an education. This despite substantial efforts to develop guidelines for coordination and implementation, namely the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies' so-called minimum standards. These standards should help alleviate the fears of donor agencies and hold aid recipients more accountable.

Education is a central pillar of any society during times of peace but especially times of war. The UAE already funds international and domestic educational initiatives through organisations such as Dubai Cares and the Red Crescent. As such, the Emirates must become a leader in the international community's efforts to create an education relief plan for Syria's children.


Maysa Jalbout, based in Abu Dhabi, is a non-resident fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution