(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
This year, World Refugee Day serves as a reminder that we, as a collective global community, made a decision that every single person on this planet has a set of basic rights—even those individuals who were forced to flee their home country because those rights were directly threatened.
The coronavirus pandemic has created conditions for long-term damage to the opportunity for a decent livelihood for the 26 million refugees around the world. According to the UNHCR, refugees and displaced people in Middle East and North Africa are among the hardest hit. The small progress that we have made in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals in the MENA region is being reversed by multiple crises. Now, more than ever, we need to work jointly across sectors and countries to support refugees in the interest of the region.
The last few months have shifted the international, regional, and local dialogue on how to address the pandemic, which has amplified the crisis for refugees and host communities. At the heart of every issue is the right to quality education. According to the Civil Society 20, part of the international forum of 19 countries and the European Union, access to quality education is essential to empowering people and advancing human capabilities. It is the only way in which we can secure inclusive, prosperous, and peaceful societies.
Fortunately, we are witnessing the strengthening of collaborative work. In the last month, Community Jameel, a nonprofit organization with a wide range of social programs, and the International Rescue Committee, the global humanitarian nongovernmental organization, brought together a group of caring influential leaders in the region who have activities directed at supporting refugees in the Arab world. Leaders like H.E. Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, whose Refugee Education Fund has assured education for over 17,500 vulnerable youth in Jordan, Lebanon, and the UAE so that they can successfully transition to becoming self-sufficient adults.
The reality is that refugee children and youth have perilously low access to education in the Arab region. According to UNICEF, the Syrian conflict has severely worsened the region’s education challenge, resulting in over two million children and youth out of school inside Syria and in neighboring countries. In Jordan and Lebanon, a minimal percentage of youth have access to secondary education, and a fraction of the youth who would have been in postsecondary education are able to continue. In a pre-pandemic 2019 report, there is already evidence that the pipeline of secondary education is collapsing, ending the hope that these young Arabs will reach higher education.
But refugees are not statistics, they are people with real ambitions and goals. There is a need to reinstate their self-confidence to reach their potential and abilities and provide them with a pathway to using education to reach an elevated livelihood so they can contribute productively to their wider communities. This is well described by Leen Jaradi, a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon, when she states:
Refugees are not statistics, they are people with real ambitions and goals. There is a need to reinstate their self-confidence to reach their potential and abilities and provide them with a pathway to using education to reach an elevated livelihood so they can contribute productively to their wider communities.
“I believe education is one of the main building blocks for any community to move forward. Our community was shaken by war, instability, and tension. We need education to be able to move forward. It is not just about graduating with a degree; it shapes our personality and shapes who we are. Refugees need this door opener, they need to get out of the mentality that they cannot achieve, that they cannot reach their goals, just because they are labelled as refugees.”
Ms. Jaradi continues to highlight the role of those who give their resources to help and the power of giving back. She says the philanthropist of the Refugee Education Fund, H.E. Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, “taught me the power of giving back.”
“I would like one day to be able to pass it forward,” she adds, “to provide disadvantaged people with the gift of education.”
It is vital for philanthropists, private and public sector actors, donors, and nongovernmental organizations to strengthen channels of collaboration to support refugee education in the Arab world. Joint work with refugee communities to achieve positive livelihood outcomes requires deep engagement because there are other critical needs that also need attention like health, water, and sanitation. That is why multi-sector collaboration is vital to any solution. Educational needs can have an equally detrimental impact if left unaddressed because, as explained by Education Cannot Wait, the “pile-on effect” of interruptions to education due to the coronavirus pandemic response has long-term implications that are elevated for the most vulnerable.
For those who work directly with refugees like Melek El Nimer, chairperson and founder of the Unite Lebanon Youth Project, “there is no way out of a refugee camp other than education.” It is these important partnerships that offer opportunities for individuals like Ali Abed El Hadi, who studies information and communications technology at the American University of Science and Technology, in the hope of improving the technology of astronomy. He explains how his education is a pathway to the dream of having his own identity: “I am proud of who I am, but I don’t like being labelled. One day they will say ‘the inventor Ali,’ so I am known for my achievements, not for my [refugee] status.”
The increasing digital divide and poverty make it harder and harder for these young Arabs to have easy access to online education opportunities. It is important to have reminders of the importance of focusing on refugees and displaced persons like World Refugee Day, especially for the lucky ones who have not become refugees themselves.
Lucky because their lives are not stories defined by loss of home and belonging. Those without complicated stories of guilt and gratefulness, death and survival, loss and opportunity that they need to share and expose in books like We Are Displaced, by Malala Yousafzai, so that the rest of the world can understand, and maybe empathize sufficiently to act on their behalf.
For the 26 million refugees, refugee day is every day. Working together for better solutions is the way forward in the MENA region because “everyone of us can make a difference. Every action counts.”