Nearly 11.5% of the Syrian population has been wounded or killed since “The Day of Rage” on March 15, 2011, when peaceful protests were met with violent military action. It has been called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
One obvious casualty of the conflict has been the displacement of 7.6 million people. Out of fear and a strong sense of survival they are fleeing their homeland for safety in Germany, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and the U.S. among others. It has been estimated that about 10 thousand refugees are in the U.S., with more than 300 in New Jersey.
But as we read and see the horrific stories about victims of violence, we realize that another profound casualty of the war for Syrian children is education.
In a country where an estimated 97% of primary school-aged children were attending class and literacy rates surpassed those of most nations at over 90%, books have been replaced with blood, and schools for military sites. Teachers have fled or been killed. The once thriving school system has been pummeled by ignorance, shattered by fear.
Curricula that once included liberal arts, sciences and math are now replaced with how to load a machine gun and how to kill as ISIS pillages their way across the Middle East, forcing their ideals on others. Today, 2.2 million are not in school at all, and it has been estimated that an additional half a million refugee children are not in school.
This is even more upsetting for women who have been brutally targeted during this conflict, with rape and what has been called “survival sex” often used as a weapon of war and marriage at an early age seen as a desperate attempt at survival and human trafficking running rampant.
And then there are the many parents who are not willing to endanger their daughters by allowing them to travel to school or are facing the imperative prospect of swallowing their pride and finding employment of any kind even though they may be accountants, professors or software engineers.
Exacerbated by traditional gender roles and inequalities that cause parental prejudice against girls’ education, Syrian girls ending up a high risk of dropping out of school is one of the devastating consequences of the nearly six-year conflict.
Although the future looks bleak for many of these refuges, there is hope. I recently read about one mother’s harrowing story of courage. Absent of resentment, the mother of seven who lives temporarily in a camp in Jordan, told a reporter that she has not given up and believes that “the future belongs to girls who are educated.”
For another young Syrian woman named Yusra Mardini, her courage and determination to survive also outweighed her fear. A few years ago her future looked so bright, but after being displaced from her home with her family, nearly drowning in the Mediterranean and feeling hunger pangs that most will never feel, Yusra faced her fears head on. As their boat sank, she and her sister jumped into the sea and swam for three hours to push it to safety, saving 20 lives. Young Yusra continued to defy the odds once settling in a refugee camp in Germany. She had a goal in mind and met it, one lap at a time. She wound up working so hard that she garnered a spot at the Rio Olympics as a swimmer on the first-ever Olympic refugee team.
And thankfully there are many stories of bravery. Right here in the United States people are also helping, some of whom remember the stories their grandparents told them of the Holocaust. Feeling a sense of responsibility or hoping to stem the tide of violence, some families are sponsoring Syrian families by helping them gain access to food, get the education their children need and overall assimilate into a culture very different from their own.
Education is the sustainable solution to ensuring these children have brighter futures. It not only provides them with the knowledge they need and crave, it also gives them the structure they need as well as the tools needed to be empowered to overcome their insurmountable challenges and NOT be victims.
Just as we teach the hungry how to plant crops and reap them for food, the only sustainable solution, we believe, to preventing violence against women is education. No matter where their home may be, most children have a thirst for knowledge, not a vengeance to facilitate violence and draw blood. And no matter what they face, education will be something that can never be taken away from them.
I write of atrocities happening thousands of miles away, but right in our backyards the same or similar violence, disrespect and suppression of confidence and spirit is also happening, clearly on a smaller scale and often going unrecognized or being masked by a flawed justice system and a perpetuated mindset that leads some women to feel they have no voice.
As refugees muster any courage they have and struggle to survive, we thankfully do see glimmers of hope in the face of such atrocities. And perhaps this is what gives those humanitarians who work tirelessly and courageously to have the hope they need to continue.