Education Without Borders – As the third anniversary of the start of Syria’s civil war approaches,
there is a race against time to deliver a groundbreaking education project to the
conflict’s hardest-hit victims – hundreds of thousands of child refugees.

A shocking three million Syrian children have now been displaced. More than one
million of them have fled Syria and are languishing in camps in neighboring
countries, particularly Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. These children are now
suffering a third winter away from their homes, schools, and friends. Many are
separated from their families, and thousands more join the ranks of displaced
persons every day in what is becoming the largest humanitarian catastrophe of our

But a pathbreaking initiative in Lebanon, involving teachers, aid agencies, and
education charities has opened a small window of hope. Amid the chaos of camps,
makeshift huts, and destitution, the fight for an important new principle of
international aid has begun: even in times of conflict, children must have access to

A century and a half ago, the Red Cross established the norm that health care could
– and should – be provided even in conflict zones. This principle was carried
forward by groups like Médicins sans Frontières, whose doctors have risked their
lives for the last four decades to deliver medical care to the world’s most
dangerous places.

Now Lebanon is the site of a pilot program to advance the idea that providing
education for refugee children is equally feasible – and no less important. Across
1,500 communities in this troubled, divided country, where Syrian refugee children
now make up 20% of the school-age population, the aim is to establish children’s
right to education as a humanitarian priority.

The typical refugee child spends more than ten years away from home. And every month
that a child is out of school makes it less likely that they will ever return. Three
years ago, most Syrian children were at school, and the country had near universal
primary education. Today, millions of children are being denied any chance to
realize their talents. The scars will last for decades.

So, in Syria and the surrounding region, there is already a lost generation in the
making: children who are now eight and nine and who have never been to school,
children condemned to work as child laborers, and hundreds of girls forced into
early marriages. There are gruesome tales of young people who have been forced to
sell their kidneys and other organs simply to survive.

Of course, we must provide food, shelter, and vaccinations. But, in conflicts like
these, the one thing that children need, beyond the material basics, is hope. And it
is education that provides children with hope that there is light at the end of the
tunnel – hope that they can plan for the future and prepare for jobs and adulthood.

The pilot project in Lebanon, designed by Kevin Watkins of the United Kingdom’s
Overseas Development Institute and led by the United Nations Children’s Fund
(UNICEF) and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), creates the opportunity to
establish a right to education irrespective of borders. Indeed, it is designed to
cater to all 435,000 Syrian child refugees now in the country. Thanks to a historic
agreement with the Lebanese government, places for hundreds of thousands of children
can be created within weeks by putting 1,500 of Lebanon’s schools on a double-shift

The scheme is already being piloted in a small village called Akroum in the north of
the country. Lebanese children are taught during the first shift, and Syrian
children in the second. Using the same school for both sets of pupils means that
education can be delivered at a cost of only £400 ($670) per child per year.

To secure places for all refugee children, we are seeking $195 million dollars a
year for UNICEF and UNHCR, with the plan to be implemented on the ground by NGOs and
the Lebanese authorities. The aim is to secure all funding during March, as the
world marks the third anniversary of this tragic exodus from Syria.

We have already assembled a coalition of ten donor countries to take the lead, but
we need ten more donors to fund the project fully. We are appealing to donors not
just to create thousands of school places for desperately needy children, but also
to establish a precedent for the 20 million other children driven by violent
conflict into displaced-persons camps and shantytowns.

There cannot be universal educational opportunity for the worlds’ children without
an agreement that we will cater to children in conflict zones. One million Afghan
children are in camps along the border with Pakistan. Thousands of children in South
Sudan still await their first chance to go to school, and schools have yet to be
provided for a million more children in the war-torn Central African Republic. These
children’s chances now depend on showing that we can make progress in Lebanon.

The UN Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000, expire in December 2015, which
means that time is running to meet the deadline for achieving the target of
universal primary education. That goal will remain unattainable unless and until we
establish the long-overdue principle that a child’s right to education knows no

Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the
United Kingdom, is United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education.

Project Syndicate