At the UN General Assembly this week, Syria and the plight of its refugee citizens are top of the agenda. In the face of challenges that will be felt for years to come, what kind of future should the rest of the world aspire to help them achieve?
Three weeks ago, I visited the Za’atari refugee camp in the north of Jordan with Save the Children, where 80,000 Syrians live, work and learn. Inside Za’atari I spent time at an activity centre, where teachers were helping children learn to read, and the walls were filled with paintings and drawings. Teenage boys wanted to talk about Manchester City’s prospects this season. It all seemed a very normal school scene – until I remembered I was inside the second largest refugee camp in the world.
The term “refugees” conjures up a homogeneous mass of people – but the Syrians displaced by the conflict are just as diverse as the members of any nation. Each individual I met has their own skills, challenges and ambitions.
In Za’atari, what struck me most was the community’s efforts to maintain a sense of normality. I saw well-maintained streets, tailors and even a shop selling bridal dresses. The entrepreneurial spirit of the residents is thriving. They are not looking for handouts, they just want to make their own way in the world and provide for their families.
One young Za’atari resident showed me around the house of his extended family; three shipping containers connected by corrugated iron to make a basic but welcoming home. Families like his receive UN rations of bread and 20 dina (£21) a month. Their diet is mainly bread, rice, lentils and perhaps chicken once or twice a week.
Right now, Za’atari is a basic but relatively safe space where people can live and children can learn, just 18 miles from the Syrian border and the conflict that continues to rage. But we must not think for one minute that refugee camps are a permanent solution. Only one third of the 30,000 children in Za’atari are actually in school. Many have family support networks, but others have lost their relatives in the war.
Mothers who could read and write told me how they weren’t confident that their children would have the same skills. All of the kids I met were bright and engaged but for the ambitious students I met who wanted to become doctors or teachers, missing years of formal schooling is likely to devastate their prospects.
Back in Jordan’s capital Amman I visited two Children and Family Centres that Pearson is funding with Save the Children. Our aim is to increase access to quality education for Syrian refugees and local children – 80 per cent of Syrians in Jordan are not actually in camps, but living side by side with Jordanians. I also met young Syrians and Jordanians at a technical college, studying to get the skills they need to become the engineers, builders, and business-owners of a future Syria.
There will come a time when the brutal conflict will end. But the debilitating effects of a missed education will stay with a child for the rest of his or her life. Investment into Syria itself may be nearly impossible while the civil war continues, but the education of millions of innocent Syrians does not need to stop. Whether in camps like Za’atari or in the countries where they have found refuge, we have the choice to invest now or lose an entire generation.
The world’s largest companies have a responsibility. Businesses have the reach, expertise and resources to make a real difference for people affected by conflict. This doesn’t just mean charity, it means real investment.
The Syrians I met wanted to gain the knowledge and skills that would mean thriving in companies like Pearson. Many also wanted to build their own businesses and drive the growth of their country once the fighting has ended. It’s in everyone’s interests for business to invest in these people as much as they’re investing in themselves.
Right now, the world’s leaders are meeting at the UN and discussing the plight of young Syrians. I will be sharing the stories of the people I met with other business leaders to see how, with partners like Save the Children and others, we can do more to provide support and investment.
Working together, we can ensure that the horrors of this conflict do not leave a permanent scar on this generation of Syrians.