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At world summit, aid groups welcome global fund for refugee children

By Dale Gavlak
Catholic News Service


ISTANBUL (CNS) — Aid groups, including Catholic organizations, welcomed the establishment of the first global fund for education for refugee children, announced at the World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey’s financial capital.

“Thirty million children have lost their homes — they must not lose their education,” Kevin Watkins, executive director of the London-based Overseas Development Institute, said earlier. The United Nations estimates that one in four of the world’s school-age children now live in countries affected by a crisis.

The “Education Cannot Wait” initiative initially seeks to raise $3.85 billion to help 20,000 refugee youth over the next five years. Ultimately, it aims to address $11.6 billion needed to support 75 million children worldwide, the institute said.

Until now, education has taken the back seat to other humanitarian assistance, receiving only two per cent of funding from international donors.

“I am excited by the ‘Education Cannot Wait’ fund because it really focuses on education,” said Jesuit Father Tom Smolich, international director of Jesuit Refugee Service. “JRS feels education is always part of any emergency situation and that has not always been part of the status quo.”

“There is also a real commitment among many funders who see we need to be doing more in this specific area,” Smolich told Catholic News Service.

Giulia McPherson, assistant director for policy at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, expressed hope that “this fund will mobilize the global attention that education deserves.”

“The argument we make is that education is certainly a life-saving intervention in addition to water, food, shelter,” she told CNS. “Education should be offered to refugees at the very start of an emergency as well as in protracted crises because of the benefits it provides, not just in and of itself, but for healing trauma and returning a sense of normalcy to children.”

Aid groups such as JRS argue that “an education can also lessen a child’s vulnerability to child labour, sexual violence, recruitment into armed groups and early marriage.”

Acting in his role as UN special envoy for global education, Gordon Brown, former British prime minister, announced the initiative on the first day of the Istanbul gathering. Although the fund was inspired by the refugee crisis in Syria, financial assistance will be available for refugees worldwide who are being denied an education as part of “the largest population of displaced girls and boy since 1945.”

“This must be an agenda for all of us to act. We don’t need rhetoric, but resources. Today we are starting our appeal,” Brown said.

JRS and other Catholic aid organizations, such as Caritas and Catholic Relief Services, are aiding Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as well as those who have fled to Europe and those internally displaced inside their homeland. Among the services, they provide psychosocial support to Syrian refugee children and their families, language training, and remedial education so children can integrate into formal educational programs.

However, JRS’ biggest educational program currently is in Chad and mainly assists 30,000 Darfurian refugees from Sudan. It provides them with education from preschool to higher education, including online postsecondary education.

“This is a priority area for us that has unfortunately seen budget cuts, particularly from UNHCR (the UN refugee agency),” McPherson told CNS, noting that only a few nongovernmental “are operating in the area in fairly difficult conditions.”

“It’s one of those forgotten crises in Africa where the Darfurian refugees have been there for over 10 years. There is no real plan in place for their long-term livelihoods. We are working in challenging context and with a large population as well,” she added.

Aid agencies like JRS also work closely with families to raise awareness about the benefits of education for girls.

Nora Issa Ahmat, 14, lives in Goz Amer camp in eastern Chad and attends a JRS-run school.

“I told my parents and my friends what I learned. I understood how important it was for me to go to school,” she said. “I try to convince the girls around me to study.”

Meanwhile, UNICEF has warned that an average of four schools or hospitals are attacked or occupied by armed forces and groups every day in global conflict zones.

“Children are being killed, wounded, and permanently disabled in the very places where they should be protected and feel safe,” said Afshan Khan, UNICEF’s director of emergency programs.

Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees told CNS that nearly half of the schools his agency runs in the Mideast have been attacked over the past five years.

“Currently, 45,000 Palestinian children are receiving education in Syria in difficult places like Aleppo, Damascus area, Homs, the south in Daraa. You have front lines that are shifting suddenly and run through camps,” he said. “School buildings are caught up in the areas that are at risk of artillery fire. So you have both the physical destruction and damage and lack of access to the buildings.”

Despite the challenges, Krahenbuhl says UNRWA has created new ways of ensuring children obtain education.

“We distribute distance learning material and we have our television station based in Gaza broadcasting programs by teachers there who reach children in Syria, not only Palestinian refugee children but Syrians.”

Krahenbuhl told CNS that even when Gaza’s own schools and buildings are repaired, the psychosocial support to children and their families must continue for a long time and there education is key. He recounted how stunned he was recently by a Palestinian refugee girl, Ahed, who achieved one of the highest academic honours in her school in the coastal strip.

“She survived an airstrike on her home in 2014 and was 7 months in a coma. When she woke up, she was told that her mother and 2 brothers had died in the attack, and yet she is one of the highest-performing students in the school,” he said.

“There can be no other explanation except she draws energy from despair and trying to overcome what has been so difficult and tragic in her life,” Krahenbuhl told CNS. “So we fight for the right to education and the possibility for these children to be able to receive it. We do have to accompany many of the children who have gone through three wars and have psychosocial counsellors who have to pay a lot of attention.”

Copyright (c) 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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