Working toward a quality education for all.

Education is a lifesaving humanitarian response

by Mark Engman, 

by Mark Engman, U.S. Fund for UNICEF

Mohammed UNICEF/UNI174070/LyonMeet Mohammed.  He’s 12.

Mohammed is 12, and a refugee from the Syrian Arab Republic.  He’s slicing baked goods at the shop where he works to help support his family.  

This is his story:

"I used to study in Syria.  I went to school.  I used to be able to write.  Here, I forgot everything.  I can’t even hold my pencil.  Here I was hoping to go to school, but instead, I’m working … I work from 11 am until 11 pm.  I get very tired so that I can help my family.  Also, my mother is ill, and so is my dad.  I have five sisters, and I’m the only son.  My sisters are always asking me to bring sweets, but if I brought them sweets, half of my salary would be gone.  When I get back, I see no one here.  They’re all asleep.  My head hits the pillow, and I sleep.  I feel there’s pressure on me.  I must work.  If I didn’t work, who would help us?  All the anger is contained in my heart.  I don’t let it out to anyone.  Sometimes I feel I want to cry, but I can’t.  It’s all in my heart.  I show nothing."

Unfortunately there are too many boys and girls in the same situation as Mohammed.  He is one of 700,000 Syrian refugee children not in school.

Millions of children caught in conflicts face not just bombs and bullets – they face losing their futures due to lack of education.

A recent report from UNICEF noted that in 22 countries affected by conflict, nearly 24 million children of primary and lower secondary school age are missing out on education.  Not just inside Syria, where 2.1 million Syrian children are out of school, but in South Sudan, Niger, Sudan, and Afghanistan.[1]

Education is a human right.  More than that, it is a lifesaving humanitarian response.  School provides stability, structure and routine that children need to cope with loss, fear, stress and violence.  Being in school can keep children safe and protected from risks, including gender-based violence, recruitment into armed groups, child labor, and early marriage.  In periods of crisis, parents and children identify education as one of their highest priority needs.

Unfortunately, humanitarian donors too often see education as a humanitarian luxury, something to be dealt with after the crisis ends.  Less than two percent of all humanitarian funding has gone to education every year since 2010.

Leaders at the World Humanitarian Summit next month will have an opportunity to change that reality.  The Special Session on Education in Emergencies and Protracted Crises will launch a new Education Crisis Platform to produce coordination, commitment, funding, and action to meet the educational needs of the most vulnerable and at-risk children.

The lofty rhetoric sure to flow from this session will be empty words without meaningful commitments from the humanitarian community, including government, nonprofit, and private sector.  It’s up to us to help convince the United States Government to make a strong political and financial pledge to the Education Crisis Platform, in support of children like Mohammed.

[1] http://www.unicef.org/media/media_89782.html

Mark Engman is the Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at U.S. Fund for UNICEF

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