In a video broadcast today in connection with the UN General Assembly, held virtually for the first time, Egyptian football star Mo Salah and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi urged the world to ensure that COVID-19 does not block access to education for millions of young refugees.
“We must make sure that all young people – including refugees – get an education,” said Salah, Ambassador for the Vodafone Foundation and UNHCR Instant Network Schools (INS) programme, which provides online tools and services in refugee camps. “Now is the time to make sure refugee students don’t get left behind."
Joining Salah and Grandi in several appeals this week were educator Mary Maker, who fled armed conflict as a child, and four young refugees in East Africa who spoke of the hope an education could offer their millions of peers.
"Education is a lifeline for all children."
Last year, enrolment in primary school for refugee children stood at 77 per cent, according to a report released this month by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Only 31 per cent of young people of secondary school age were enrolled, but that represented a 2 per cent increase over the previous year. Three per cent of refugees were enrolled in university or other institution of higher education.
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But COVID-19 has proven the most disruptive force to education in recent history, interrupting the education of 1.6 billion students, including up to 7 million refugees.
“Education is a lifeline for all children, and especially those who have been forced to flee violence and persecution,” Grandi said. “The COVID-19 pandemic is regrettably making receiving an education even more difficult, especially for refugee children, who were already twice as likely to be out of school as non-refugee children.”
As students in many parts of the world return to school this autumn, the Malala Fund, using data from UNHCR, warns that up to half of all refugee girls of secondary school age in the world’s developing countries (where the majority of refugees live) may never go back. Using past epidemics as a model, as well as other information, the report found that as economies suffer, many children – especially girls – leave school to earn money for their families. It also found that girls aged 12 to 17 take on additional domestic duties, face a higher risk of sexual exploitation and experience greater rates of teenage pregnancy after a pandemic.
Mary Maker, a former refugee from South Sudan and teacher in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, now studies in the United States and also serves as a UNHCR High-Profile Supporter. Having faced the “unbearable hardship” of growing up in a refugee camp, she offered a reminder that COVID-19 threatens to undermine the gains that schooling creates for refugee children, and especially girls.
“Women are in vulnerable spaces and face gender-based violence. They are in spaces where they feel like poverty is literally controlling their lives and they need to overcome that,” Maker told Femi Oke on Al Jazeera’s The Stream. “Girls are having to make the choice of either saving their parents by getting married to men that they often don’t know or having to wait in poverty.”
In the same interview, Grandi said he shared Maker’s concerns.
“I was in Lebanon a few days ago, a country where one person in four is a refugee,” he said. “Parents told me with tears in their eyes that they couldn’t send their children to schools anymore because they had to send their children to work.”
Grandi urged the world to include refugees and other displaced people in socioeconomic, healthcare and other responses to COVID-19.
"Girls are having to make the choice of either saving their parents by getting married or having to wait in poverty."
Some young refugees around the world are discovering innovative ways to continue their studies in the face of the pandemic. At Dadaab Camp in Kenya, a Somali refugee teacher broadcast her lessons over the radio. In Bolivia, UNHCR and partners run a mobile classroom to bring school to Venezuelan children living in shelters. Teachers at Inke refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo hold outdoor classes, keeping a safe distance from students.
In their online meeting, Grandi and Salah highlighted how providing technology – such as tablets, laptops, charging stations and WiFi – has helped refugees stay connected to teachers, classmates and learning material. In a recorded video call, they called on world leaders to join them in working to ensure equal access to education – the fourth of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out by UN member states in 2015 in a concerted effort to slow or halt climate change, end poverty and eliminate inequality by 2030.
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Salah also joined with four refugee students from Kenya, South Sudan and Tanzania in a pre-recorded address aired at the opening of the SDG Action Zone, a two-day virtual conference designed to inspire a “decade of action” to achieve the goals.
“Kakuma (refugee camp in Kenya) has many talents – future doctors, future scientists. The only way to know these talents is to support us,” said Luel, an 18-year-old South Sudanese refugee who loves biology and dreams of becoming a doctor.
Fatna, 20, a Sudanese refugee who lives in Ajuong Thok refugee camp, Jamjang in South Sudan, remembers having to write on the ground when she first began school at the camp. Today, she dreams of becoming a doctor and building a support system for orphans. She urged world leaders to support education for girls. A footballer, she told Salah she was stealing some of the forward’s moves and wears number 11 – Salah’s jersey number.
“I agree with her,” Salah said. “She’s asking the leaders of the world for the girls to have a good education like everybody."