Last weekend, the full moon reminded us that we are near the middle of Ramadan, a month in which families and communities usually gather to break their fast together. But this Ramadan came during a pandemic that is more than a public health crisis, it is a crisis that is affecting every sector, including education. According to UNICEF, there are an estimated 10 million refugees in the Middle East, many of whom live below the poverty line with limited access to basic sanitation, healthcare, and education. These families will be setting aside their hopes for their children to get an education and focusing instead on survival. In the spirit of Ramadan, when we are reminded to do right even in the most difficult situations, we are blessed in that we can help these families.
The reality is that almost half of this refugee population is made up of children who dream of going to school and having a chance at an education. Unfortunately, in some Middle Eastern countries, fewer than 5% of all refugee youth make it beyond high school. This was the stark reality before COVID-19 got a foothold in the region. Without real attention, this pandemic will devastate that small ray of hope that started to build alongside the goodwill of those people dedicated to providing access to quality education for all.
Since launching the Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair Refugee Education Fund (REF) in 2018, the fund has supported over 17,000 youth in Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates to access and succeed in secondary and post-secondary education. But, as the pandemic pushes opportunities to learn into the virtual space, education is becoming further and further out of reach for the most vulnerable in this crisis. The grantees and beneficiaries of the Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair Refugee Education Fund have shared that it is the practical and logistical barriers that can be the most difficult for refugees to overcome. The loss of family income, reduced humanitarian aid, lack of access to devices and internet, and lack of local study support are tearing apart the hope and commitment these youth cling to when they dream of getting an education – despite their situations.
The priority of most international organizations is to control the spread of the coronavirus and to provide adequate protection and health services to refugee populations. As these populations survive the pandemic, it is important that the international community does not neglect assuring appropriate resources are allocated to assuring education to these youth. Indeed, UN agencies have issued an urgent appeal for additional flexible funding to counter the negative effect of the COVID-19 crisis, part of which will go to education. Other donors are coordinating to meaningfully contribute financial assistance and expertise. However, this education crisis, that sits within a refugee protracted crisis, needs more attention and resources fast, before we lose the little gains we made over the last few years.
The Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair Refugee Education Fund is collaborating closely with its grantees to identify ways to repurpose funds and creatively address the most pressing needs to assure educational opportunities are not lost. But our research showed that this response alone is not enough. Hence, the Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair Covid-19 Online Learning Fund for Refugee Education was established last month to support more children and youth by providing them with the technology, platforms, and guidance to continue their education online or on TV successfully. This emergency fund will leverage greater engagement from more partners to reach a minimum of 6,000 more children in these devastating situations.
Online learning has become the go-to solution for many organizations to try and assure education is not lost during the pandemic. But we are now well into the global school closures. We need to acknowledge that refugees and host-community youth need more than an emergency response. A collective effort to recommit to refugee education and to seek out creative localized solutions is critical to the livelihood of millions of youth in the Middle East.