Photo © Julia Karlysheva/International Alert
Over half of the 5 million people made refugees by the war in Syria are children. These children are witnesses to untold violence, the complete destruction of their everyday lives, and the uncertainty and powerlessness of life as a refugee.
Many of these children have fled with their families to neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon. These two countries, with populations of 6 and 4 million, host around 2 million refugees between them. Neither Jordan nor Lebanon was a model of economic health and stability before conflict erupted next door. Now things are infinitely worse.
The strain of coping with this massive increase in population shows. It shows in doctors’ waiting rooms, where arguments break out between Lebanese and Syrian patients. It shows in schools, which now do double shifts - mornings for Lebanese students and afternoons for Syrians. And it shows in the job market, with unemployment cited as the number one cause of tensions between refugees and the rest of the population.
Only a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in Syria, whereby people feel safe to return home and rebuild their lives, can put an end to this. Everything else is just sticking plaster. We need to work hard to get to this point.
But we also need to deal with the here and now. We need to alleviate tensions in the countries in which millions of Syrians now reside, before those tensions escalate. We also need to support those affected by war to deal with their trauma, to rebuild themselves as human beings, with all that entails.
Children are key to this. We need a generation that can build peace, and generations after that to sustain it.
A crucial avenue through which this support can be provided is education. Not just the kind of education that involves getting kids in classrooms to learn their ABCs, though the structure and routine of a normal school day is important, but the kind that responds to the needs of children who have lived through conflict.
With well-trained teachers and counsellors, schools can help children work through and manage trauma. Schools and youth centres can also bring refugee and non-refugee children together, building a bridge over community divides and helping improve each group’s perceptions of the other.
And integrating peacebuilding ideas and approaches into curricula, such as the skills to resolve conflicts without violence, the values of tolerance and respect for diversity, and the ability to critically analyse and question the world around oneself, give children a toolkit with which to go about building peace from the playground up.
That is the idea behind International Alert’s peace education project. As part of this, we work with our local partners in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey to provide Syrian children and young people with a safe space to process their feelings about the conflict, and build their resilience in the face of violence and displacement.
Our experience of working with around 7,000 children and young people shows that the provision of psychosocial support, positive adult role models, and lessons in non-violence, human rights and self-care helps young people to navigate and cope with the impact of war.
Children and young people in refugee communities, so often seen as a problem, are one of the few opportunities we have to ensure that this horrific conflict doesn’t sustain for generations. We need to seize it with both hands.