GENEVA – When Muzoon Almellehan fled her home in Dara’a, Syria, five years ago, she did not know if she would be able to attend school at the refugee camp in Jordan. So, the then 14-year-old packed her school books among the handful of belongings she was allowed to carry to safety.
“I was very worried about education. It is the greatest weapon that can help us fight for our rights and achieve our dreams,” she told a meeting of government officials, civil society and international organizations in Geneva today.
The meeting “Let them learn: access to education for refugee children” at the Palais des Nations was convened on the sidelines of formal talks to discuss how refugee access to quality to education could be improved as part of the new global compact on refugees.
Almellehan recalls the relief and sense of hope she felt when able to attend school at Za’atari refugee camp, where she soon became a passionate activist persuading other children to attend school.
“When I heard I could go to school in the camp, that moment changed my life.”
“When I heard I could go to school in the camp, that moment changed my life. It gave me hope and made me stronger. It made me who I am now,” said Almellehan, now 20, who has since moved to the United Kingdom with her family and become UNICEF’s youngest goodwill ambassador.
“I am so lucky now I live in the UK with my family. But I cannot be completely happy without seeing every child in the world with access to quality education. I am fighting for every child, not just refugees, for every child over the world.”
Syrian activist Muzoon urges world leaders to educate refugees
Almellehan has a strong plea for governments around the world meeting in Geneva this week as part of formal consultations on the refugee compact, and calls on them to put education at the “top of the agenda.”
The compact aims to transform the way the international community responds to refugee crises, and in particular to find ways for refugees to be better included in host communities which in turn should receive more robust and reliable support.
Other speakers at today’s meeting called on governments to ensure access to quality and timely education opportunities for refugee children and youth, who fall far behind their peers.
Worldwide, only 61 per cent of refugee children attend primary school compared with the global rate of 91 per cent, according to a UNHCR study, Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis. Even fewer, 23 per cent refugee children, attend secondary school compared to a global rate of 84 per cent. Only one per cent of refugee youth attend university compared to 36 per cent of youth globally.
“The vast majority of refugee children face the double jeopardy of losing their homes and their education,’ said Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly, Head of Education Policy and Advocacy at Save the Children.
“Quality education is really the be all and end all of everything.”
He noted refugees can face particular challenges and called for the compact to detail practical actions that will “move the needle in closing the education gap,” making a tangible difference for refugee children.
The meeting heard that proper technical and financial support was needed for hosting governments so they can include refugees in their national education sector plans. Refugees may also need bridging programmes or intensive language support in order to transition to local schools.
Summing up today’s meeting, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commission for Protection, Volker Türk, noted: “Quality education is really the be all and end all of everything. It helps protect refugee children, giving them hope in their future, and promotes social cohesion. Investments in education can also provide real opportunities for host communities.”
UNHCR was given the task of developing a global compact on refugees by the UN General Assembly in this historic New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants of 19 September 2016, in which 193 governments pledged to forge a fairer global system. Formal consultations are currently underway, and the compact expected to be adopted by UN Member States at the end of 2018.