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An Urgent Plea For Syrian Refugee Children In Lebanon

BEIRUT – In the village of Akroum, in the northeast corner of Lebanon close to the Syrian border, a unique experiment is taking hundreds of Syrian refugee children off the streets and into school.

Written by Gordon Brown and Najib Azmi Mikati Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Akroum’s local village school has teamed up with exiled and unpaid Syrian teachers to offer, through a double shift system outside of normal school hours, an education in Arabic to children who have fled from Syria. Many of the children are learning for the first time in three years having fled from their Syrian schools, which have been burnt down or are being used as military outposts.

And thanks to a remarkable partnership between Lebanese parents, Syrian teachers and international charities, these children — who were a few weeks ago child laborers or even beggars — have started to recover their lost childhood and now have hope that there is a positive future worth preparing for. They show what can be achieved when good people come together in a common cause. And what has been achieved for a few hundred children can be now achieved for all 435,000 Syrian child refugees in Lebanon — if we urgently adopt a bold plan.

Lebanon, one of the smallest countries in the region, is now shouldering the biggest burden of the Syrian refugee crisis. It is being rocked by wave after wave of suffering, bearing the brunt of the biggest humanitarian crisis since 1945 as the Middle East lives through one of the most tumultuous times in its history. The recent security incidents in Beirut outside the Iranian Embassy and the assassination of the former Finance Minister, Mohamad Chatah, have increased fears of Lebanon dragging back into the abyss of sectarian strife.

One quarter of the country’s population are now Syrian refugees, the equivalent of 15 million people turning up one day on the shores of the U.K. or 79 million refugees arriving in the U.S. In some areas of the country — like Wadi Khaled and Arsal — incoming refugees outnumber national residents. And while Lebanon has never closed its borders where there is need for refuge, Lebanon urgently needs additional help to cope.

The impact on Lebanese host communities is also enormous. Lebanon has been exceptionally generous in its support of refugees fleeing Syria, opening its borders and sharing its resources, especially with children. But the additional strain on an already overburdened public sector is beginning to compromise the ability of the government to meet the needs of its own people, let alone respond to the needs of refugees.

The majority of the refugees are seeking shelter in the traditionally deprived Northern and Bekaa regions of Lebanon, where already vulnerable host communities are seeing increased expenditures, declines in incomes and an erosion of public services. Tension between refugee and host communities, in classrooms and between children, is mounting. The anecdotal evidence is that Lebanese children are also dropping out of school as a result.

So investment is urgently required from the international community to improve the education opportunities for vulnerable Lebanese and Syrian child refugees. The country needs help to narrow the gaping inequalities, ease unrest and reduce the long term damage to Lebanon’s economic recovery in the face of the Syrian crisis.

Lebanon — historically a land of refuge for people fleeing persecution — cannot take any more displaced people. So Lebanon welcomes moves to open Britain and other countries to Syrian refugees and asylum seekers. But for those already in our country, Lebanon needs international support to do more. There are grim personal accounts of children begging on the streets, children being trafficked and girls sold into early marriage, even of young people feeding the international market for body parts by selling their kidneys to survive — and this is happening because thousands of the near one million refugees urgently need the help that an under pressure Lebanon can no longer give on its own.

Many people live huddled in tents, makeshift huts and overcrowded tenement buildings. They lack clothing and proper shelter, clean water and sanitation. There is also a great risk of epidemics of waterborne diseases, measles and tuberculosis spreading. But in addition to shelter, food and medicine, children need something else. They need hope. And it is the offer of education that can demonstrate to young people that it is worth planning for the future.

With the support of the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the education campaigner Malala Yousafzai, an ambitious plan has been drawn up costing $195 million (£117 million) a year to repeat across Lebanon what the Akroum school have achieved in one village. The brilliance of the idea is that it can be operational within weeks. Instead of having to build new camp schools for refugees, exiled Syrian children will use existing Lebanese schools on this two-shift system.

In the next week in Britain, meetings will be held with British NGOs and a briefing will be held for members of Parliament. The British government has provided nearly $1 billion in aid over the last three years. But there is a global gap between what has been done and what is needed — and it is nowhere more glaring than in the provision of educational opportunities for those children who are at risk of becoming the lost generation. This week, we hope the U.K. government can help us make education a reality for every Syrian refugee in Lebanon and show that we can establish the principle that child casualties of crises, whoever and wherever they are, have a right to schooling.

More than one hundred years ago, the Red Cross established the principle that the right to health care transcends borders. Now we can establish that even in war zones children can learn. Out of the ruins of a civil war and a humanitarian catastrophe, some good may finally come.

This post originally appeared in Huffington Post.

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