LONDON – If you ever lose faith in the power of hope, not to mention the importance of never giving up, remind yourself of the story of Mohammed Kosha. A 16-year-old Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, Mohammed has overcome obstacles that most of us cannot even imagine, in order to excel in his education. World leaders should take note.
Four years ago, Mohammed and his family fled their home in the town of Darya, a suburb of Damascus, to escape relentless bombardment by Syrian armed forces. Having already lost a year of primary education in his hometown, where it was simply too dangerous to attend school, he then spent another year out of the classroom when the family arrived in Lebanon, where they now reside.
Mohammed’s life changed when Lebanon’s government opened the country’s public schools to refugees. Classes were not only crowded; they were also conducted in English, meaning that he would have to learn a new language. But Mohammed seized the opportunity to learn, and threw himself into his studies. Last month, against all odds, he scored the second-highest marks in Lebanon’s Brevetsecondary-school exam. And he is not done yet.
Mohammed knows that education is the key to building a better future. In his words, “Learning gives us hope.” If only world leaders had even a fraction of his wisdom.
There have been some encouraging signals. At a meeting in London in February, international donors recognized the importance of education for refugees, promising to get all of Syria’s refugee children into school by the end of 2017. They even pledged $1.4 billion to achieve that goal.
It was an ambitious promise to a group of highly vulnerable children. Today, about one million Syrian refugee children aged 5-17 – roughly half the total – are out of school. And most of those who are in school will drop out before starting their secondary education. In the space of a single primary-school generation, Syria has suffered what may be the greatest education reversal in history. Enrollment rates for the country’s children are now well below the regional average for sub-Saharan Africa.
But now, just six months later, the promise of education for all refugees is about to be broken, dashing the hopes of millions of Syrians. Just 39% of the $662 million in urgent education aid sought by United Nations humanitarian agencies this year has been funded. And as documented in a Theirworld report published today, only a fraction of the $1.4 billion pledged in London has been delivered.
As the international community shirks its responsibilities, Syria’s neighbors have continued to make extraordinary efforts to address the crisis. Lebanon, Jordan, and (to a lesser extent) Turkey have opened up their public schools to Syrian refugees.
But these countries’ education systems, which were strained even before the crisis, cannot handle the burden that they are being forced to shoulder. Syrian refugees now comprise one-third of all Lebanese public-school students. This is like the American primary-school system suddenly having to absorb all of Mexico’s children. There are simply not enough teachers, classrooms, or textbooks to deliver decent educations to the refugee children.
The February conference was supposed to produce solutions that would ease the burden on Syria’s neighbors. Host-country governments did their part, preparing in advance their plans for delivering universal education to refugee children. They then worked with donors to develop comprehensive strategies for reaching all out-of-school children and raising the quality of education.
Yet, with the international community having failed to hold up its end of the bargain, progress has not just stalled; it could be reversed. More than 80,000 Syrian refugees now in school in Lebanon are at risk of losing their places.
The human consequences of the education crisis among Syrian refugees are impossible to miss. They are apparent in the growing army of child laborers picking vegetables in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley or working at garment factories in Turkey, where a half-million refugees are out of school. They are also reflected in the continuing flow of refugee families making the perilous journey to Europe, driven by the hope that their children will have educational opportunities there. Yet many European governments continue to invest in razor wire and detention centers, rather than in schools and teachers.
There is an alternative – but the clock is ticking. Next month, the UN and the United States will host another round of refugee summits. This time, governments can leave their recycled promises and heady rhetoric at home; instead, they should carry with them concrete plans to deliver the $1.4 billion they have already pledged.
The international community must also rethink how aid is delivered. The Syrian crisis will not end any time soon. Instead of delivering aid through unreliable, underfunded annual humanitarian appeals, donors need to provide predictable multi-year funding, as the United Kingdom has done. More generally, the European Union and the World Bank should expand and intensify their support for education.
Of course, more donor finance for education is only part of the equation. There is more that host-country governments, however overstretched, can and should be doing. For starters, they should be working to remove the language barriers facing Syrian children. They could also address chronic teacher shortages through expedient recruitment of Syrian refugee teachers. Above all, host governments could help refugees become more secure and self-reliant, notably by upgrading their legal status and expanding the right to work.
Ultimately, though, a credible response to the refugee education crisis must involve a fairer approach to burden-sharing. Before heading for the UN summit treadmill next month, governments should review the promises they made at the London conference. And they should recall Nelson Mandela’s dictum: “Promises to children should never be broken.”
This piece by Kevin Watkins first appeared on Project Syndicate.