UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie called on the world to invest in education for refugee children at a virtual UNESCO and UNHCR event on Monday.
"We’re meeting today to discuss how we can prevent this disruption from becoming permanent for millions of refugee children," Jolie said in her opening remarks. "If you were a refugee child before the pandemic, you were already twice as likely to be out of school than other children."
About 1.6 billion children were pushed out of school due to COVID-19, UNICEF reported in April. Prior to the pandemic, there were already almost 260 million children missing out on an education around the world, according to a UNESCO report.
"To my mind, there’s one fundamental question in this, because of how the world so often speaks of and talks about refugees: Do we allow [the world] to regard refugees as a burden?" Jolie asked. "Or do we help them to see that they are individuals with huge potential, who, if given the right tools, can develop their minds, contribute to society, and help stabilize their home countries?"
"There is no better investment that we can make — and, of course, it is also their basic human right that must not be denied," Jolie added.
The webinar — "Continuing learning and schooling for refugees: Ensuring refugee students are able to learn at home and return to school after COVID-19" — looked at the ways in which technology plays a vital role in the current education crisis, discussed how the world can learn from past crises to prevent a worsened state of global education following the pandemic, and talked about how different governments are planning for a return to school.
Ministers of education from Cameroon, Pakistan, and Kenya joined the conversation to discuss how their education systems have been impacted by COVID-19 and what they are doing to address the disruption. Refugee graduates and teachers, representatives from UNHCR, UNESCO, and Education Cannot Wait, and others joined the event, too.
Canada’s Minister of International Development Karina Gould was one of the first speakers of the event, and she announced $5 million in funding for projects in conflict-affected and fragile states, including radio-based education for children in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"Countries needed to take stringent action to stem the spread of COVID-19, but school closures threaten to roll back gains that have been made in recent years, particularly on gender equality," Gould said. "We must support the world’s most marginalized children and youth get back to school and get back to learning. And this includes the 3.7 million refugee children who were missing out on an education before the pandemic."
"Canada believes in the value of gender equality & we are taking action to promote the empowerment of women & girls, as well as LGBTQI individuals and other marginalized people." - @karinagould kicking off today's event #LearningNeverStopshttps://t.co/wf4xsIcHsJ— Global Citizen Canada (@GlblCtznCAN) July 13, 2020
As Jolie pointed out early on, investing in education for refugees allows for an entire generation of people to learn, develop, and shape future communities.
Bahati Hategekimana, a DAFI graduate (UNHCR’s higher education scholarship program) spoke about this at the event through her own experience. The student nurse was born in Rwanda but moved to Kenya as a refugee in 1996, where she completed her primary and secondary education and then won a DAFI scholarship in 2014, which led her to study nursing.
Hategekimana pointed out that many students who receive the DAFI scholarship pursue studies in health-related fields.
"We can all now contribute and build a future to strengthen the health systems in the countries that host us and in our countries of origin," she said.
Among the event’s talking points was the need for funding and resources, as well as a focus on the importance of teachers when it comes not only to teaching but also to helping students with their mental health.
To that end, the UK's Special Envoy for Girls’ Education Baroness Liz Sugg announced a commitment of £5.3 million to UNHCR, which she said will enable 5,000 teachers to provide education in 10 refugee-hosting countries over the next seven months.
This #UKaid will support more than 5,500 teachers' salaries in 10 of the 🌍's poorest refugee-hosting countries— Baroness Sugg (@liz_sugg) July 13, 2020
At 3pm, I’ll be speaking with Angelina Jolie + others, on why education must be prioritised
"Education must be prioritized in the global recovery from coronavirus," Sugg said. "It’s really clear from our discussions today that this epidemic is not just a health crisis, it’s an education crisis, especially for refugee children."
There was another common thread among the conversations: the idea that refugees need to be part of the decision- and policy-making processes when it comes to addressing education for refugees and displaced people.
The need for raising awareness, understanding, and acting with urgency were also poignant points of discussion.
While funding and resources are undeniably important, Nayla Fahed, Malala Fund education champion, Lebanon made an interesting point in contrast.
"Please do not give us too much money. Money makes us greedy. We will try to adapt our solution to the amount of money — and not to the reality of the needs," Fahed said, noting that funding needs to be used for adaptable, flexible, and long-term solutions when it comes to education.
As COVID-19 continues to disrupt the world in so many ways, the understanding the world has for issues like education have led to a sort of turning point.
"What I hear from everyone is how this is a very different moment in our world," Jolie said. "We know a lot of what needs to be done and I am hoping that we will all continue to be in very close contact and that this is the first of many conversations … I believe we can accomplish quite a lot."