From saving lives to changing lives

Investing in the education, health and freedom of refugees pays long-term dividends, writes Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasim, eminent advocate for the United Nations' refugee agency.

A young girl named Helen once told me we should look at every war as if it is our family members fighting each other. As a global family, we must find a diplomatic solution to man-made crises. It is equally our duty to provide succour to those whose lives have been shattered by conflict. It is for children like Helen that we must shine a light on the tragedy of displaced men and women, and the children who make up half the world’s refugee population.

In the early days my first instinct was to try to help everyone at the same time. But there was always another suffering child or woman I couldn’t reach. I learned that it’s better to focus our contributions on one objective at a time so that we make a meaningful difference to people’s lives. We might not reach every single person who needs help, but if we lift up some segments of the population, we transform them into humanitarians who in turn will support the people we can’t reach.

Over the decades, I have been privileged enough to lead humanitarian efforts from Jordan to Lebanon and Egypt, from Palestine to Somalia and beyond. The aid workers I meet have one thing in common: they are ordinary people with extraordinary hearts.

To make a lasting difference, however, we – and they – cannot rely solely on emergency aid. You don’t teach independence by encouraging dependence. We must invest in the future of refugees, through education, as we would invest in the future of any of our children.

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Education offers refugees and displaced children an opportunity of a brighter future. Credit: Getty Images.

"When we educate refugee children, we are creating a generation of adults who will value peace and tolerance."

Conflict sets in motion a dangerous chain reaction. Displacement triggers unemployment, which leads to poverty, which forces young refugees into child labour. This in turn leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, crime and violence.

Most worryingly, the psychological trauma of seeing their parents killed before their eyes can make children grow up and seek out war or conflict themselves.

Humanitarian action can break this chain. Yet aid must evolve as refugees’ needs do.

When war erupted in Syria, the immediate priority was food, water, blankets and shelter. When days turned into weeks and months became years, it became clear that we should now focus on schools, teachers, books, healthcare and infrastructure – in addition to vital counselling to break the cycle of hate and trauma.

The immediate aftermath of a disaster will always call for a focus on urgent interventions such as lifesaving aid, but we must not wait too long before embracing more long-term goals.

We can learn lessons from former conflict zones such as Rwanda, where the focus shifted from short-term requirements such as peacekeeping, to medium-term – reuniting displaced families – and then to long-term needs, such as jobs and reconciliation between former enemies.

Without this strategic approach, any ‘peace’ is just a temporary ceasefire and one liable to crumble into conflict again.

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In a decade, the Syrian conflict has created some 6.6million refugees, many of them children. Credit: Getty Images.

For my own part, I saw this in Palestine with my nonprofit initiative Salam Ya Seghar. By helping women to find jobs and supporting female entrepreneurs, we empowered families, because now the mothers could afford to educate their children.

These educated children will grow up and reject crime and violence because they have financial independence. This in turn contributes to peace and gender equality.

In Syria, the largest humanitarian crisis of our era, education is not just the gateway to jobs, it is the gateway to peace and tolerance. Good quality schools, teachers and educational material can do more for world peace than all the world’s armies combined.

The Big Heart Foundation and others, all committed to raising funds for Syrians, have already planted the seeds through education, and are determined to ensure that positive success stories emerge from this catastrophe. We need to raise a generation of independent adults who will rise above their underprivileged background, because what matters is not where they came from, but where they are going.

History is full of refugees who refused to let their past weigh them down and rose to greatness as Nobel laureates, scientists, writers, educators, artists, inventors and more.

However, this is only possible when we progress from donations to investments in their education, health and freedom. If refugees remain shackled to handouts, we will never know which of those little girls and boys might have discovered a cure for cancer, tackled world hunger, or negotiated world peace.

I no longer see our work as charity, because charity implies a one-off aid package to address immediate needs. I see it as an investment in our society and our future.

When we educate refugee children, we are creating a generation of adults who will value peace and tolerance. By helping today’s refugees, we reduce the ranks of those of tomorrow. - PA