Saving futures – the role of education in emergencies

When thinking of children and youth in their usual environment, we think of them amidst their families and friends, in the playground, and first and foremost, in schools.

We grow up with school being a natural part of our lives. We are nervous on our first day in school, excited to learn how to read, write or count and soon after our first day, school has become part of our daily routines. Getting older, decisions such as choosing the type of secondary school, vocational training or university become key to our personal and professional development.

However, there are also the social aspects of school. Most of you may now think of your childhood friends from kindergarten or primary school. They are often the ones that accompany us all through our lives. At school, children learn how to communicate, to interact and play with others, how to compromise, just to name a few.

When I look back on my time in school, I remember how proud and excited I was to be called a pupil. And that was even more true for my younger siblings for whom it meant to be a member of “the big ones” when they finally were allowed to attend school.

Reality, however, shows that our world is anything but perfect. Not every child gets the opportunity to go to school, learn, thrive and interact socially. Children grow up in conflict zones, are suffering from natural disasters, and as a result are often forced to leave their homes and familiar environment.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) 68.5 million people are displaced, among them 25.4 million refugees, meaning they had to cross a boarder to be safe. Out of those 25.4 million, over half are under 18[1]. And while politicians in the so called West want to make us believe that all these refugees and displaced people are coming to Europe, 85 % are actually hosted by developing countries.

We know also, that the causes for displacement are not easily overcome – just look at the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, The Democratic Republic of Congo or the situation of Rohingya in Myanmar. According to the UNHCR, on average people remain displaced for over 20 years[2].

By now you may have become aware of the point I want to make – right – the importance of securing education for these millions of displaced children and youth. Displacement takes longer than before, and simply providing shelter, water, food and medical services over such a long time is just not sufficient for a dignified life with some sort of future prospective.

I am currently working in Bangladesh in the Rohingya response and I’m witnessing first-hand how providing Education in Emergencies (EiE) can impact people’s lives. And that’s not only the case for children and youths but also for the lives of our volunteer teachers from the community. Each context has its special characteristics but overall we can claim that access to at least some sort of – and at best quality, accredited – education gives families back some routines, a sense of normality and perspective.

During class, children and youth can focus on something else than their daily struggle or previous experiences. Education means a gaining in knowledge, but also contributes to psycho-social well-being, emotional learning, the improvement of social networks, and it provides parents and caregivers with spare time for other tasks, such as earning a living while children are in school.

In humanitarian crisis in particular, we mainly tend to think of children’s education. This is not enough – we need to think of sustainable, more long-term solutions and not forget about secondary and tertiary education. Especially youth very often get a raw deal but are at the same time most at risk if they are not given any prospects for their future. Furthermore, if there are no follow-ups available after primary level there comes a point when attendance drops. Opportunities at secondary level and above can consequently also contribute to better attendance in lower levels.

While providing education in emergencies is not intended to compete with lifesaving services, I think we also have to start to acknowledge that the course of emergencies changed and call for a shift to more long-term – or at least mid-term – approaches and funding structures.

Only then can we ensure that children, youth and whole communities do get perspectives and we can hopefully also contribute to changes in perception. What I mean is not to think of displaced people only as helpless and defined by the situation they are in, but as people who have something to offer, who have potential, are skilled, knowledgeable, and so many other things rather than just victims.

Petra Weissengruber

The writer is an Education in Emergencies Professional, currently working as Education Programme Manager for FCA (seconded to DCA) in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.


[1] UNHCR: Figures at a Glance

[2] UNHCR: Global Trends: Forced displacement in 2016