For 13-year-old Ghazal there was only one dream, one wish, one hope: to go to school.
I met her five years ago when I was researching a story of Syrian refugees fleeing their country’s civil war. Ghazal was living with her parents and four siblings in a camp for refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (like many Syrian refugees, Ghazal and her family did not want their last names revealed for fear of reprisals from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad).
Only it wasn’t really a camp, more a shantytown of makeshift tents made from donated wood and plastic. In the vocabulary of aid agencies, these were “tented settlements.”
The Lebanese government is ever mindful of the country’s temporary Palestinian refugee settlements set up in 1948 that became permanent. Consequently, it refused to allow the United Nations to erect formal camps for Syrians with running water, sewers, clinics and, most importantly for children like Ghazal, schools.
There were thousands of Ghazals in the Bekaa Valley, living in 250 improvised settlements that had sprung up across the land like a bumper crop of human despair. In the miserable conditions of December 2013, when the first winter rains began turning the camps’ slippery soils into muddy skating rinks, most people simply stayed in their tents.
For school-aged children, these were gloomy affairs crammed with fussy babies and cranky grandparents. There were no books, no games, little to distract the children.
The problems didn’t end there for Ghazal. At dawn she would be loaded onto a truck along with a dozen other girls her age to work in the fields. There was a late harvest of vegetables to bring in, and the farm owners realized Syrian refugee children were the best labourers to do it — cheap, compliant and available by the trailer load.
Ghazal was her family’s only source of income outside of relief from aid agencies.
Her one glimmer of hope was that she might be able to go to school. Ten Lebanese public schools had managed, with extra money from the Lebanese government and international aid, to institute a second shift of classes.
At the Gab Elias primary public school, for example, 710 students (mostly Lebanese) attended classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. while another 650 students (all Syrian refugees) went to school from 2 to 6 p.m. By Canadian standards, the schools were rough affairs, with well-worn furniture and few computers. Many students would wear woollen hats and coats in class.
When I was there, the Lebanese government estimated that of 1.2 million Syrian refugees, 300,000 were school-aged. But the Lebanese education system could afford to absorb only one-third. The rest sat like Ghazal, wasting away in refugee camps or forced into day labour.
The United Nations is terrified this will become a lost generation. In 2013, the UN issued a report that painted a depressingly accurate picture of life for Syrian refugee children, concluding that “if the situation does not improve dramatically, Syria risks ending up with a generation disengaged from education and learning.”
Within two years of that report, Syrian refugees began fleeing toward Europe in a flood that caught the world’s attention when front pages displayed pictures of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body lying on a Turkish beach.
I’m not saying the exodus was sparked simply by parents desperate to get their children to a country with a functioning school system. But there is something soul-sapping for parents who watch, with a sense of mounting frustration and desperation, their children’s future slowly evaporate in a refugee camp.
At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, education is another word for hope. When you deprive a child of education, you are taking away that child’s hope for the future.
It is one of the common themes I have seen in my four decades as a journalist, most notably in the poorest countries, including Afghanistan, where a majority of the population are illiterate.
Rampant illiteracy means there is no proper judicial system, a feeble government bureaucracy, a frail education system.
The Taliban would attack schools that educated girls and women. In response, aid agencies opened up secret schools in private homes scattered throughout Kandahar City, where each day women discreetly gathered to learn how to read and write.
Afghanistan has many troubles culturally, politically and financially. But a lack of basic education for its people not only helps create those problems but makes everything worse.
Whenever I returned home from a trip overseas, I was irritated anew with people (most often politicians) who chronically complained about problems in Canada.
Our country may have its own problems, but when it comes to education, we are fortunate enough to give the vast majority of our children the gift of hope.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst who spent 30 years as a journalist in print, television and radio, including 16 years writing a political column for the Edmonton Journal. In 2013 he completed an investigative series on Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. He was also twice embedded with Canadian combat troops in Afghanistan, in 2007 and 2008.❚