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Why is education important during an emergency? What does it mean to be a young learner in a conflict affected country? To answer these questions, the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) launched an essay contest on the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of INEE Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response Recovery.
According to the latest report published by UNHCR, the United Nations, High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2014 there were 59.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide due to conflicts and persecutions: 19.5 million were refugees (up from 16.7 million in 2013); 38.2 million were IDPs, people displaced within their home countries (up from 33.3 million in 2013); and 1.8 million people were asylum seekers (up from 1.2 million in 2013). 86% of refugees came from regions and countries considered economically less developed, and over half the world’s refugees are children. Furthermore, UNICEF reports that every year 100 million children and youth are affected by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, droughts or typhoons. Attacks on health and education facilities, as well as the use of schools for military purposes have increased in many regions: in 2014, hundreds of children were kidnapped from their schools, or on their way to school, and tens of thousands have been recruited by armed forces and groups. Overall, there are an estimated 58 million primary school aged children out of school around the world: 50% of them live in conflict-affected countries.
As the Secretariat of the United Nations Secretary General’s Global Education First Initiative (GEFI) states, “education is the single best investment nations can make – and during an emergency it needs to be prioritized”. Nevertheless, Dean L. Brooks, INEE’s Director, and Joel E. Reyes and Marina L. Anselme, Co-Chairs of the INEE Steering Group, note that “less than 2% of humanitarian aid in recent years was directed towards education, leaving millions of children with few prospects and little hope for achieving a quality education”. More investments are urgently needed in preparedness, response and recovery to ensure education in times of crisis, as discussed during the recent Oslo Summit on Education for Development.
The essay contest launched by INEE represented an important stage for children and youth to share their memories, express their ideas, and explain the fundamental role of education during an emergency. 720 were submitted by participants aged seven to 68, in Arabic, French, Spanish and English from 52 countries around the world; a select few have been highlighted in a special booklet, The Brightest Hope: Essays from around the world on the importance of education in times of crisis.
“Although the city was in a state of emergency, luckily, we still had classes. Some teachers who lived within the school compound or close by in unaffected areas, still managed to come. It wasn’t like the usual classes but it was still worth it, it kept my mind sane.” wrote Jephthah, 19 years old from Nigeria. “Education meant ‘peace’ to me during this period. It felt like a safe word that kept the evil away. It was the only thing that took my mind off it all. No matter what the subject was, it didn’t matter to me. Even if it was Chemistry which I found boring, it felt like all the subjects said the same things: ‘Peace’ ‘Keep calm’ and ‘Safety’. For that period, I came to like what I loathed.”
“Education meant ‘peace’ to me during this period. It felt like a safe word that kept the evil away.” Jephthah, 19, Nigeria
Ayesha, 14 years old from Pakistan, shared: “I was one of the first few students to reach the school. My teacher asked us to take out our English books. As I turned towards my bag something caught my attention. I saw an overwhelming stream of water flowing right towards us. I froze. I remembered my father fretting over the recent floods in our province and soon realized what was happening. I couldn’t breathe. I turned around to see my class fellows but they were already gone. My heart thudded inside my chest. The flood had hit my town. As I climbed up a nearby tree, I could see people running for their lives. I started crying when I saw my bag floating away.”
“I turned around to see my class fellows but they were already gone. My heart thudded inside my chest. The flood had hit my town.” Ayesha, 14, Pakistan
Recalling the civic and political unrest in Mount Elgon, Kenya, 21-year-old Ivy wrote: “I remember hearing the hushed voices of teachers in the staffroom talking about how bad the situation was. I heard about how one of them had watched his family from a bush being slaughtered and he couldn’t do anything about it. I remember hearing him weep about how helpless he felt. School was the only safe place because we had the Kenyan soldiers surrounding the place.” Ivy also added: “Teachers told us that life had to go on, that we had even the more reason to study; education would be our only way out. Amidst gunshots, watching huts rising up in flames in the nearby village, we toiled. We cried for our families’ lives in prayer every night which we happened to spend under the beds. We were living in fear; constant hooting of owls, the gunshots were worse and louder at night. Since we could not go outside to the latrine, we had a bucket in the dormitories, the smell was way better than the smell of death and fresh blood that blanketed the night air.” Reflecting on the importance of education during the emergency, Ivy wrote: “Education had saved our lives. If it were not for being in school, most of us would have lost our lives, or worse still, we would have become child soldiers. Education was the only way out of this menace.”
“Education had saved our lives. If it were not for being in school, most of us would have lost our lives, or worse still, we would have become child soldiers. Education was the only way out of this menace.” Ivy, 21, Kenya
Mahikan Desiree is a 21 years old woman from Ivory Coast. Following the post-election violence over a disputed presidential election in late 2010, she left her country and reached a refugee camp in Liberia. In her essay, she explained: “In difficult times, education allows the younger generation to forget the pain and suffering they experienced. To those who are victim of crisis and who are vulnerable, education opens their future to new opportunities. Indeed, us young refugees need to make up the time we have lost. … it is important to emphasize that education in emergencies is the key to success for those in crisis.”
“To those who are victim of crisis and who are vulnerable, education opens their future to new opportunities.” Mahikan Desiree, 21, Ivory Coast
As Kanwal, 12 years old from Pakistan, wrote: “Education is one of the important things in the world which can finish all the bad things from the world and can produce love, friendship and peace among people and can remove stereotypes.”
“Education is one of the important things in the world which can finish all the bad things from the world and can produce love, friendship and peace among people and can remove stereotypes.” Kanwal, 12, Pakistan
Read and download the whole selection of essays on INEE’s website.
Andrea Pregel is an inclusion professional with experience in disability, development, education, gender and health across Europe and Asia. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Social Research from the University of Turin (Italy), and an Erasmus Mundus MA/Mgr in Special and Inclusive Education from the University of Roehampton in London (UK), the University of Oslo (Norway) and Charles University in Prague (Czech Republic). He is Co-founder and President of the Global Observatory for Inclusion (GLOBI), and works as Programme Advisor for Social Inclusion and Disability at Sightsavers International.