Enrolment for the new school term began on Monday in Lebanon. But this is no ordinary school term. This is the start of a an academic year so different from any other that I want the international community to wake up to the peril we face. By the end of this year the refugee population in our schools could exceed Lebanon’s state school numbers.
Last year, we managed to offer school places to 105,000 Syrian refugees. We took them off the streets where they were prey to child traffickers and terrorist propaganda. We did so with a unique double-shift system that allows pupils to study in French and English in the first half of the now extended school day and Syrian refugee students to study in Arabic in the second half.
This year we want to do better. We now have 400,000 school-age Syrian refugees on the streets of our country, and we wanted to offer at least 200,000 places in formal school. We have opened up 100 more schools as double-shift schools. But while we have been able to offer 140,000 places, we are still 60,000 places short of our planned intake.
We simply don’t have the money to hire the teachers we need. Yet educating a child under the double-shift system is so economical and cost-effective that we can teach each pupil for about $500 – $600 a year.
But despite our pleas to aid agencies around the world, thousands who could be at school will be left on the streets. The much needed funds have yet to materialise. We have support from the UN agencies, including Unicef, UNHCR, and the World Bank. And governments such as the UK, Germany, the European Union, Norway and the United States have provided much needed support. But we need a broader-based international coalition to support education on a multi-year basis, so we can plan and deliver what is needed.
And if we can’t raise the numbers to 200,000 places this year, our plans to meet the longer term goal – to offer schooling to what could eventually be 500,000 refugee children – will be frustrated. If we are able to provide these spaces, young people can learn the valuable skills needed to return home, rebuild their countries and future.
And this is the tragic irony: usually in an emergency the facilities cannot be found, but in Lebanon, the schools are there, and the teachers ready to teach. Certainly we need more help to advertise the offer of places to the Syrian families in Lebanon, but the real gap keeping us from educating more is the absence of money to fund them.
Lebanon is being asked to do what no other country has to face – to take in a refugee population soon to equal one-third of our resident population.
I doubt if any country in the world could cope. But amid all the pressures we daily confront, we have offered to help the refugees. The question I ask leaders of the international community: why will you not help us to do more?
It is in the best interest of the entire international community that this initiative is a success. We all want Syrians to be able to return home to a peaceful Syria. Supporting the education of these children helps families to remain in the region and have hope that they will soon return and no longer need to continue dangerous journeys to Europe and beyond.
Under the leadership of Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, a new plan covering Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan has been drawn up, and he is now trying to raise the vitally needed additional money of nearly $250m from new donors and traditional givers.
But now is the most testing time. We can either deliver the places or have to live forever with a lost generation denied schooling, denied security and worst of all denied hope, on the streets with all the consequences for disconnect and even the stability of our country.
Families I meet do not want to embark on dangerous voyages to Europe. That is not their first choice. They want to ensure their children have hope for the future and they want to be well-placed nearby for their eventual return to Syria. But the people of Lebanon cannot help them without proper funding from the international community.
I urge the world to come to the aid of our troubled country before it’s too late.
Elias Bou Saab is Lebanon’s Minister of Education
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