Going to work today I couldn’t help notice the normality of the scene. Parents rushing to get their children to school before the gates close. Yellow buses pulling up with older pupils, most of them excitedly, some a little more reluctantly, heaving their school bags down the stairs. Commuters scurrying into the warren of New York’s subway system, others darting through congested traffic on bikes, or in cars listening to the morning news.
The universal goal to learn, develop and eventually make a decent living couldn’t have been more visible. But it’s a scene and dream that for too many children and families is too easily fractured.
Today, some 250 million children live in areas affected by conflict and over half a billion children live in high flood risk areas, with climate change threatening to imperil even more. Health epidemics, such as the Ebola virus outbreak, further destroy lives and the futures of children.
So how can we better respond to these crises? How can we improve our efforts in bringing that normality, opportunity and hope back to these affected children wherever they are?
When I board my flight for Istanbul to attend the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), I do so in the hope that the commitments made will bring better prospects and longer-term outcomes for children in crisis.
In the humanitarian world we often talk about the integration of emergency and development work and how achieving this can help break cycles of crisis. But what does it mean in the real world? What does it mean for a child who has had to flee their home for safety? Or a child whose house was destroyed by an earthquake and is in a shelter alone, or families stuck at home petrified by the outbreak of a virulent disease?
In Lebanon last year I met Ayat, a Syrian girl who had been out of school for three years, since her family fled their home. By working closely with the Ministry of Education and local NGOs, the UNICEF Country Office helped to scale up non-formal educational opportunities. The immediate result was that Ayat attended an accelerated learning programme and is now back in school. She started to make friends in the community, build trust and return to some normality. The longer-term impact comes from the skills she’s developing to better cope with the ongoing crisis and ultimately to build a more prosperous future.
The teachers trained to support Ayat, as part of the programme, improved their expertise for the long-term benefit of all children in the community. While the Ministry of Education realised the value of alternative education, including home-based support, to help all out of school children get back to formal school across the country. UNICEF with its presence in countries before, during and after crises is particularly well positioned to support such a process.
The same happens when we better prepare children and families on how to respond in the event of a natural disaster. I remember the story of a 12-year old boy in Nepal who survived the earthquake by following step by step what he learnt in class – to hold his head and curl up into a ball under his desk. A life is saved and the impact on a community is reduced.
The Education Cannot Wait fund that will be officially launched at the WHS will help to prioritise education in emergencies. Despite its critical short and long-term benefits, education in humanitarian crises receives, on average, only 2 per cent of funding. The aim of the fund is to raise nearly US$3.65 billion in five years so that 13.6 million children can access quality learning, playing a vital role in integrating our humanitarian and development work.
The children I meet in crisis affected countries across the world never fail to amaze and impress me. Their strength in adversity, such as the determination to carry on learning despite the obstacles and dangers they face, a natural trait that we need to build on. The simple dream of a safe journey and a day at school – a normal childhood.
The next generation must not be defined by the crises they are living through but by what they achieve through adversity. It’s our responsibility to provide them with the opportunities to become the future doctors, teachers and engineers that they aspire to be, so that more stable and prosperous futures can be realised for all.
Afshan Khan is UNICEF’s Director of Emergency Programmes. She has spent 25 years in the United Nations, primarily with UNICEF, responding to some of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time, from the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami to the Syrian conflict affected countries today.