I can still hear my children’s worried voices from the backseat. ‘Mom, do you think they will be nice? What if I won’t make any friends?’
It was the fall of 2001, my daughter was four, my son was six. We had just moved to Syria and were driving to their first day of school and pre-school outside of Damascus, full of the same nervous anticipation that millions of other children and parents feel every year on the first day of class.
Over the next several years, that road was travelled so frequently that we knew every bump and tricky turn, they in their colourful school bus with their Syrian friends, teacher and a set of fluffy dice festively dangling in the window. I would join the other proud parents for the steady stream of school plays, sports days and end of year celebrations.
All of those memories came flooding back as I travelled that very same road to Damascus last week.The short drive from the Lebanese border to the country’s capital passed the familiar homes and housing blocks nestled in the same, sand-swept hilly terrain with patches of lush gardens, but in a distinctly different Syria for the country’s children than those days when school buses clogged city streets and ferried children to classrooms and seemingly bright futures.
Today, neighbourhoods and whole cities lie in ruin, some two million children inside Syria are out of school, while another estimated 700,000 children outside of the country are without education. Thousands of schools have been damaged, destroyed or are housing displaced families, and four million people, half of them children, have fled the horror of war, streaming into neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.
All that promise for Syria’s youngest – the vast majority of whom were in school before the conflict – have given way to millions of children and adolescents being at risk of becoming a lost generation. It is the children and youth who pay the highest price for the world’s inability to put an end to a conflict that is not of their making.
Perhaps no one is shouldering the burden more than those children and families who were on the margin when the crisis was sparked some five years ago and has flared into one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in recent memory. They are often the most vulnerable, the most neglected, and the most at risk of abuse and exploitation.
The need to invest in the education of Syria’s children and youth in many ways has never been more urgent than now. School can provide a sense of normalcy in a situation far from it. It builds vital skills that children and youth need to help make a living and to one day reassemble shattered lives and communities. History has shown that no good comes out of lack of opportunity, destitute, anger and despair.
UNICEF, governments and partners are scaling up efforts and innovative ways to ensure that learning and care are provided to help stem the tide of destruction. Inside Syria, over 200 UNICEF staff are working with partners around the clock to help assist Syria’s children – not only with immediate humanitarian needs of water, nutrition and shelter, but also education. But much more is required in funding as needs are outpacing resources.
Investing in education is one of the best investments, not only for Syria’s children, but also for our collective future. It is the right thing to do, logically and morally.
Let’s never forget that the children sitting on our backseat or on the school bus one day could be the same children wrapped up in an impossible situation the next. We owe it to them and to their children to speak up and demand the same level of care and support we would want if it was our son, daughter, niece, nephew or our younger selves who were on the cusp of joining a lost generation.
Malene Kamp Jensen is a Communication Specialist based at UNICEF NYHQ.