Education brings safety and hope for children in emergencies
Education is a powerful mean to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and instability, writes FCA’s regional direction Ashraf Yacoub.
A decade into the conflict, millions of Syrians inside the country find themselves displaced and unable to access food, shelter, work or essential health services. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the already decimated economy, which has severely impacted the ability of households to purchase basic necessities.
The situation for children across Syria has never been worse. Nearly 90 per cent of children need humanitarian assistance, an estimated 2.45 million children are out of school, and 1.6 million children risk dropping out.
Education is a powerful mean to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and instability; it is a way to initiate and sustain recovery and reduce the disastrous impact of conflict.
As a Finnish organization, we have extensive experience and expertise in education programs. In 2020, we had to adapt to new ways of working, such as providing solutions for remote learning. An initial slowdown of project implementation was an opportunity to focus on school rehabilitation until measures were in place to resume educational activities safely.
During my visits to Syria, it has been uplifting to see the results of our work. In 2020, Syria programme reached over 35,000 beneficiaries, including 4,900 students and teachers benefitted from the formal and non-formal educational activities that we supported last year.
When it comes to Syria’s future, I’m most worried about the over-politicization of the conflict, which hampers reconciliation, rebuilding and humanitarian aid. But the resilience of Syrian youth gives me hope. Given the opportunity, they are capable of building a better life for themselves and their communities.
Regional director, the Middle East
This text twas originally published in our Annual Report 2020 that came out recently. Would you like to know more about what was done?
Amid uncertainty, IDPs in Syria dream of becoming engineers, teachers or car dealers
War-torn Syria has descended into a financial crisis that worsens the country’s humanitarian situation. Children living through the war need moments in which they can just be children.
“How can I ever repay my country? I have been told that it is too tough for someone my age to ask, but I am growing up in this country. I eat the food that my father, a farmer, has planted in this soil. That teaches me what is happening here. I want to do something for my country when I can.”
These are the words of a Syrian eight-grader from Eastern Ghouta, Ghadeer Al Aghawa, who we interviewed in January.
I was horrified when I read the interview. Does a child really have to be burdened by such thoughts? Her reflections underscore the grim reality: a disaster marks an end to childhood.
Syria has been through a tumultuous decade since the war started in 2011. The intricate conflict involves the government, opposition groups, other countries supporting the various parties, and extremist groups, and the turmoil has a staggering impact on the emerging generation.
The country hosts millions of students who have gone to school in exceptional circumstances.
At least five million children have been born in Syria during the war. An additional million were born as refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries. According to UNICEF data, thousands of children have been injured, and every ten hours, a Syrian child dies because of the war.
There are no signs of relief as Syria enters another decade in challenging circumstances.
The country faces an unprecedented economic collapse, worse than anything witnessed during the war thus far, writes The New York Times. The currency is weak, salaries have decreased, and the prices of necessities have soared. Syrians suffer from a chronic lack of petrol, which they need for cooking and heating the buildings where many families live.
Marwa Omar Safaya teaches computer science at an FCA supported school in Eastern Ghouta and observes first-hand how the country’s situation affects the children.
“During severely cold winter days, I notice how the children’s hands turn blue. Nothing protects their small bodies from the cold; the price of a coat nowadays equals a month’s salary,” she says.
Teacher Marwa Omar Safaya has seen the war’s impact on children.
The reasons behind the economic collapse are manifold, and many of them are interrelated, such as widespread destruction, international sanctions and the collapse of Lebanon’s banking system.
Statistics by UNOCHA underscore the situation’s severity. The number of people in need has increased by 20 per cent compared to the same period last year. Of Syria’s 18 million people, over 13 million need humanitarian assistance, and six million need it urgently. The World Food Programme (WFP) warned in February that a record number of 60 per cent of the population suffers from a lack of food.
Amid these needs, it is challenging to reconstruct cities ruined by a decade of war. The coronavirus pandemic and the measures curbing it further complicates daily life.
During the first lockdowns, experts worldwide expressed their concerns on how closing schools might affect learning globally. UNICEF and the World Bank said that already a few months of school closure might scar a generation, and worst-case predictions fear entire “lost generations”.
In Syria, the pandemic is only the tip of the iceberg. The country hosts millions of students who have gone to school in exceptional circumstances. Teacher Marwa Omar Safaya feels the pain of her students.
“We try to convince them that life has a lot to offer and that miracles happen when you go to school and work hard. At the end of the day, they only think of how they can complete their mandatory studies to find work and earn food to their table,” Marwa describes.
Eight-grader Ghadeer Al Aghawan is disappointed by the lack of computers in her school.
Eight-grader Ghadeer Al Aghawan says she is grateful for all that has been done for her school during the past years, but some things still disappoint her.
“We have IT classes but only theory. We do not have any equipment to practice what we learn, and that is sometimes frustrating. I know that outside our small town, the rest of the world is dependent on computers and technology. I feel like I am falling behind.”
Ghadeer’s disappointment is understandable. The digital divide between different societies is deep, and the divide increases inequality.
Finnish schools, for instance, utilised the internet for learning already when I was at Ghadeer’s age in 2007, and students did school assignments on computers. In Syria, this chance does not exist for most people, even today. It would not even be possible to introduce digital systems amid war. Computers require connections, connections rely on infrastructure, and infrastructure is built with money.
One thing is obvious: the schools play an essential part in disasters like the war in Syria. The schools offer a safe space and room to breathe for children enduring challenging circumstances. Ghadeer has found solace in school.
“For now, I only try to do my best at school”, Ghadeer says.
She has faith in a better future.
“Even after all the fighting, good things have happened, and I’m waiting for the good things that are still to happen.”
Children living through war need to experience moments in which they feel like children. And schools are the best place for that.
The author works as Communications Specialist for the Middle East at FCA. FCA supports access to quality education for internally displaced people in Syria.
By now, we all speak “covid” fluently. As with any recently learned language, it makes at times sense to reflect what we are saying. Everyone agrees that the post-covid world will not be the same as the world before. We speak of it as a central, neutral-sounding concept that we call “the new normal”.
Speaking about the new normal is meant to help people adjust to a new reality. Because this is a global crisis, all countries are affected in one way or another. There is a readiness to accept many profound changes to our lives, though in some countries this is much more painful than in others.
As professionals working with development cooperation and humanitarian interventions, we use the word ‘resilience’ to describe how societies can react to a crisis. Resilience can be understood as the ability of individuals, communities and countries to cope with and recover from shocks.
In simple terms, resilience is “the capacity to bounce back”. Humanitarians talk of “building back better” – not only bouncing back to what once was but actually improving it by bouncing forward.
Inequality, emissions and exclusion were never supposed to be normal
The question is: what will Covid-19 pressure us to do? This is what defines the new normal.
I am wondering though about the word “normal”. Many things that used to be normal before Covid-19 were never supposed to be normal at all. Poverty in an insanely rich world is not normal – the world’s 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 50 per cent.
Travelling from point a to b with connecting flights that use double the fuel is cheaper than taking a direct flight. Excluding large groups of people from political decision-making can still be called democracy. Accepting that a member of the UN Security Council openly participates in violent conflict seems to be possible.
With most countries being in financial difficulties in a post-covid world, tough choices need to be made on how we rebuild better societies than before. The debate on what needs to be done is only starting, with the world not having any precedents for ‘collectively pulling the emergency stop’.
The core of the Covid-19 response: leave no one behind
What can help us in this debate?
We should, for example, stop talking about humans as animals (herd immunity). We must focus on how we as humans collectively can overcome Covid-19 by valuing human dignity and every human life, using, for example, the principle of leaving no one behind.
For FCA, it means that we adjust our programming, and push the boundary even further. We – as well as others – learn that digitalization can indeed be a programme enabler, may it be reaching out through socially distant town halls or enable distant learning through ‘Interactive Audio Instruction’.
We indeed stay socially close and engaged and care for one another – physically distant can still be socially close.
We certainly need to ensure that the “new normal” is bouncing us forward collectively and globally, rather than allowing questionable political decisions to be labelled as normal and justifiable.
We need to avoid bouncing back to the ‘old normal’ or even below it.
This mindset helps us to deal with current disruptions on a massive scale and also to prepare for future disruptions. Distance learning capabilities may become so normal that blended learning is globally taken to a totally new level that also works during the next disruption.
Perhaps one of the better things about speaking covid fluently is the “stay home, save lives” idea. People have gotten used to the thought that they have to restrict their own lives – not so much because of being in danger themselves, but especially to protect others, particularly risk groups.
The principle of leaving no one behind is indeed at the core of the Covid-19 response. As an idea, it has the potential to inform a beautiful and altruistic new normal.
The author, Matthias Wevelsiep, works as Senior Operations and Program Manager for the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers Secretariat.