As the bombs drop and refugees flee for their lives, remember Ukraine’s children

‘War doesn’t just wreck lives, it wrecks education too.’ Ukrainian refugees on a train to Poland. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian
‘War doesn’t just wreck lives, it wrecks education too.’ Ukrainian refugees on a train to Poland. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

With 1.5m refugee children having fled Ukraine, we think about the urgent need for humanitarian relief: food, water, shelter and clothing. But we must ensure children’s education is central to the immediate response to their suffering, because war doesn’t just wreck lives, it wrecks education too.

Pick a humanitarian crisis: Syria, Greece, Afghanistan, Uganda. In every instance, education is the first service children lose. The sad truth is that children who are displaced by conflict remain in that situation for years.

In a time of such suffering and need, why worry about education? Because it provides a sense of normality during upheaval and chaos. It provides a daily routine and some sense of hope for the future, while at the same time providing the opportunity for counselling and other essential mental health services. It also is a distribution point for health services, food and other necessities for children and their families. These services and supports are essential for all children.

The provision of education in emergencies is always hugely appreciated by the families concerned. From my conversations with refugee parents, most recently in the Greek islands and Lebanon, their first priority after settling somewhere with some sense of stability is for their children to return to a meaningful level of schooling.

But the international humanitarian community has its work cut out. More than half a million children have already crossed borders as refugees into neighbouring countries, chiefly Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania.

None of them will have been in school for weeks, and they were already rebounding from the disruption due to Covid-19. An order to close all schools for two weeks when the invasion started – affecting all 5.7 million school-age children – was declared. Ukraine’s ministry of education has reported that 160 schools and education facilities were damaged or destroyed in the first week of Russia’s invasion. And bear in mind that what we are seeing now is in fact a rapid escalation of a crisis that has been affecting children in eastern Ukraine since 2014. More than 750 schools have been destroyed, damaged or forced to close, according to Save the Children, in the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

We do at least know how to set about the challenge of educating Ukraine’s displaced children. At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, Education Cannot Wait, a global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, was launched and it has so far distributed $1bn in assistance.

At the time, it was accepted that a minimum of 4% to 6% of emergency and humanitarian funding should be directed to education, though the European Union set benchmarks ranging from 10% to 15%, depending on the situation.

However, the current humanitarian appeal for Ukraine asks that only 2.2% be devoted to education – about $11.40 for every child in need. We know this will not get us very far in providing the support children require. We are calling for educational provision to begin for Ukrainian refugee children within 30 days of them fleeing their homes.

How education is best delivered for refugees will vary depending on location. The gold standard has been to integrate refugees into schools in the host community. If space is tight, double-shifting schools – using schools for two shifts a day – has been an effective approach. My organisation, Theirworld, was involved in setting up a successful double-shift system in Lebanon with the country’s ministry of education and UN partners, which has educated more than 350,000 Syrian refugee children in the past five years.

In other instances, using the Ukrainian curriculum taught by refugee teachers may be appropriate. Additional non-formal education, such as play, sports, drama or simple reading groups, can be provided by UN agencies and non-governmental organisations. Schools in western Ukraine, if it remains a relatively safe zone, may be overrun with internally displaced children, and international assistance may well be required there.

What’s certain is that this crisis will have dire impacts that last many, many months, and probably years, and so we must prioritise the educational wellbeing of Ukrainian children right away and help them cope with the trauma that has been inflicted on them. In Ukraine, as in any conflict, children lose the most – their childhoods and their innocence. We have been too slow to respond in the past. Let’s not make the same mistake.

Justin van Fleet is president of Theirworld, a global children’s charity.

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