In total, the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, estimates that today there are more than 65 million people who have been forcibly displaced, with 22.5 million considered refugees – people forced from their home countries.
This is not a new problem. There have been refugees and refugee camps for decades. Al Baqa’a, a refugee camp in Jordan, was first created in 1968 as an “emergency” camp after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It is still home to 100,000 Palestinian refugees. Which, while shocking in many ways, at least means there are established services in the camp, including schools.
Education (or the lack thereof) in refugee camps is a growing problem. If only because there are more refugees (and displaced persons) than ever before. With more than half of the refugees under the age of 18, schooling is vitally important.
Given that more than 80 percent of refugees have relocated to developing countries – with their own infrastructure and educational challenges – it’s not surprising that schools for refugees aren’t usually the top priority. After all, clean water, adequate food and decent shelter, along with access to medical attention, come first and there’s little enough of those.
Survival of the body obviously depends on the basics. But what about the future, and the survival of the mind and spirit? Education is vital if refugee children are ever going to move beyond survival mode, whether they’re able to go home again or not.
Abraham Leno was, as a child, a refugee. His family left Sierra Leone at the beginning of the civil war in 1991. They spent 10 years living in refugee camps. “Each September between 1991 and 2001, when I was 16 to 26 years old, I lived in desolation and envied the children in our host communities in Guinea who wore shiny school uniforms and were driven to school by their parents.” Leno writes in this moving article in The Washington Post.
He continues, “For me, those years were spent on the street corners, selling fuel in bottles to earn a living and working as a porter to be paid pennies for a day. I craved the opportunity to hold books in my hands, but the only one I could access was a Bible.”
Now an adult, with 18 years of experience working in refugee camps around the world, Leno urges others to learn from his story and work. “I’ve felt upset many times witnessing how, in the generation since I lived in a refugee camp and longed for school, there has been little improvement.”
Statistically, Leno is correct. According to the UNHCR, while 91 percent of the world’s children attend primary school, only 50 percent of refugee children can. It’s worse at the secondary level, when the gap widens. Only 22 percent of refugee adolescents attend secondary school compared to a global average of 84 percent.
Despite the disheartening numbers, there are some positive signs. There are organizations that have taken the problem to heart, and are coming up with viable solutions.
In Leno’s article, he points to a model being used at a Syrian refugee camp in Za’atari, Jordan. The American Refugee Committee in partnership with the government of Jordan and the refugees themselves have set up “out of school” lessons, which are taught by qualified Syrian and Jordanian teachers. They have managed to reach about 6,000 students and offer 10th and 11th grade certifications, as well as high school diplomas.
The Italian nonprofit, Building Peace Foundation, has launched a program called Re:Build. The team has designed and produced temporary, modular, and re-deployable structures suitable for multiple uses, from schools to medical clinics. It takes about two weeks to build a structure, using the labor (paid) available in the camps. This past summer, Building Peace announced plans to build a school that can accommodate up to 3,000 children at the Za’atari refugee camp.
Another organization has also stepped up. Room to Read seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in low-income countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education and developing literacy skills and a habit of reading among primary school children. In June, Room to Read announced a program, under the Room to Read Accelerator, to to bring half a million early grade books to primary students and Syrian refugees, also in Jordan. The organization takes a holistic approach to its work, in this case training and collaborating with Jordanian authors and illustrators, who, in turn, are finding inspiration from stories shared by refugees.
Giving children access to education does more than improve their immediate situation. It keeps them on a positive path, as opposed to falling victim to recruiting campaigns by terrorist organizations, or similar, violent, fates. Education also gives these children and young adults a chance at a better future.
It’s critical to remember that the children who are caught up in the strife are also the best hope for a peaceful future. Educating them is key to creating that possibility.