There are many things we take for granted—water from our taps, food from the supermarket, a roof over our heads, a doctor to vaccinate our children. Yet these are often out of reach for the people served by Catholic Relief Services.
And there is another precious commodity I want to talk about this month—school.
Every September, as sure as water flows from the faucet, our children and grandchildren gripe as their vacation comes to an end and they must march into the hallways of education once again. But imagine if their school wasn’t there. Imagine if September came and went, and the school doors remained closed to our children.
The refugee crisis gripping our world makes that scenario a reality for so many children today. Millions are fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Some have left their countries. Some have sought refuge within them. I learned so much about their plight this summer—visiting refugees in Lebanon, Greece and Serbia.
Many of them were young men trying to reach Europe so they could find work and send money back to their families—to their children. More than half of the 16 million people in the Middle East who have been forced from their homes are children.
Most of the children had been in school when they had a home. Now, too many are not. An interrupted education would be one thing if it were a matter of being away for a few months; even a year or 2. They could get back home and catch up. But the war in Syria has been going on for more than 5 years. The most recent violence in Iraq dates back almost as far.
In fact, the reality of refugees today is very different from what it was after World War II, when much of the current legal and humanitarian framework for helping displaced people was put into place. Now, the average refugee will be away from home for more than 20 years. In terms of education, that is a lifetime: the years when each of us builds the foundation that will support all aspects of our lives—economic, spiritual, intellectual.
That is why so much of our work with refugees focuses on education. The children caught up in turmoil have suffered trauma. They need emotional and psychological support, as well as caring teachers, to help them reclaim their lives. Education plays a vital role in providing structure, a sense of normalcy and a place for children to heal.
CRS is providing assistance to more than 1 million Syrians across the Middle East and Europe, and more than 150,000 uprooted Iraqis. We are supporting more than 64,000 school-aged children in countries throughout the region.
Our work recognizes that children who have experienced violence might not be ready to sit right down in a classroom. So our child friendly spaces in refugee camps provide a safe, secure environment where children can take part in informal education, recreation and counseling. These activities address children’s fears, loneliness and insecurities so they can start to heal. They learn communication and trust, which prepares them emotionally for formal education.
We use puppetry and play to reach children , with videos produced by No Strings International, founded by professionals who once worked with The Muppets. “Red Top,” “Blue Top” and “Out of the Shadows” allow children to face their fears and hopes in a safe space, through a world of imagination.
Many of the refugees we work with do not live in camps. They are often in overcrowded apartments in cities around the region. The local schools are supposed to accept the refugees, and, for the most part, we find that they try to be welcoming. But at times the influx is overwhelming, and refugee children face stigma and discrimination. We help refugee families with the logistics of getting their children into schools, and we provide remedial classes and other support.
Our work in education is a critical investment in the future. One day our prayers will be answered and peace will return to Syria, Iraq and the entire region. We want children to be ready—regardless of when that day comes—to take their place in building peaceful and prosperous nations that will be welcoming to all.
Amar, a Syrian refugee living in Jordan, told us that education for her children is her top priority. When asked why, she responded with an Arabic proverb that means “Learning is light.”
May blessings overflow,
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO
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