Here’s what the Brussels conference can do for Syria’s children

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Syrian refugee children in Lebanon [©Andy Hall/Terre des Hommes]

The Brussels III Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the region kicks off today in Brussels. Delphine Moralis explains why education must be top of the agenda.

Delphine Moralis is the secretary general of child rights NGO Terre des Hommes.

When a social worker first met Ahmad, he had not been to school for six years. He had poor Arabic literacy skills, and his French was not developed enough for him to enrol in a local school in Lebanon.

Like millions of Syrian children currently living in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, Ahmad’s future prospects had been jeopardised through no fault of his own.

But thanks to funding from the EU for the ‘Back to the Future’ project – a programme implemented in Lebanon and Jordan by development and humanitarian NGOs Terre des Hommes, War Child Holland and AVSI – Ahmad is now going back to school at the Khenchara Educational Centre.

The centre is the first of 19 to be opened around Lebanon, helping Syrian refugees adjust to the Lebanese education system by teaching them French, and allowing refugee children to catch up on their literacy and numeracy skills.

“Once I have finished my education, I want to become a carpenter – just like my father,” he says. Now 16, Ahmad is picked up for school every day by bus, guaranteed a daily meal and also plays football with his friends at the centre.

More than 200 children and young people just like Ahmad are receiving an education and learning assistance at Khenchara, with 19,000 refugee children going back to school in both countries after assistance from Back to the Future. With the project’s help, these children can restart their education and get back to enjoying a happy childhood.

But more resources are needed for all Syrian children to enjoy quality schooling. According to No Lost Generation – a group of NGOs (including Terre des Hommes) and UN agencies working with refugee children and young people in the region – over three million school-age Syrians are still not in school or alternative education arrangements.

These children face many barriers to education. The war in Syria has dragged between 55 and 67% of the population into extreme poverty, meaning many families now cannot afford the associated expenses. One in five children who are not in education are blocked by the transport costs involved, with another 18% unable to access schooling due to language issues.

A lack of birth or registration documentation – both within Syria and host countries – can put children at risk of statelessness and block them from education systems.

Protection issues and violence can also keep children out of school. Violence is endemic in the schools and wider communities where Syrian children live, with violent bullying, child labour and child marriage highlighted as key reasons why child refugees from Syria drop out of school in Lebanon.

Many children who have experienced war, violence, family separation and displacement are also suffering from acute psychosocial distress, something current psychosocial support in schools within Syria and the wider region cannot currently manage effectively.

The third Conference on the Future of Syria and the Region, currently taking place in Brussels, must be the platform where decisionmakers honour promises made at previous conferences and take urgent action for these children and young people. Flexible, long-term funding for educational support programmes for Syrian children must be prioritised urgently.

Education is a human right, and is also crucial for the future of Syria and the region. Donors must continue their efforts to guarantee all Syrian children and young people have access to official, quality and safe opportunities to learn – whether they are refugees, displaced within Syria or living in host communities elsewhere.

Resources must be pledged to expand social protection schemes within Syria and neighbouring countries, breaking down barriers such as poverty and discrimination that may stop children attending school. This long-term commitment is essential so all Syrian children can complete both basic and higher education, while creating safe and inclusive learning spaces which promote social inclusion in the wider community.

Donors must also seek to support the transition from education systems created as an emergency response to more long-term solutions guaranteeing all vulnerable children and youth can get the effective schooling they deserve. Child mental health, psychosocial support, child protection and gender-based violence are key to this and must be invested in.

Ahmad missed six years of school. But now he is learning again and can follow his dream of being a carpenter.

He and millions of other Syrian children and youth across the region will be the ones who rebuild Syria. It’s time both EU and international governments and donors put these children and young people first, and pledged to empower them by helping to make quality education available to all in the region.

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