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Education Can Make All the Difference in the Lives of Refugee Children

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My partner and I were in Grand Bend over the weekend, marking the end of summer. The wonderful beach was full of happy families, large umbrellas and little kids playing along the shore.

We all live in one world, but in vastly different realities.

Refugees are all over the news these days -- and refugees never make the news. What's newsworthy about their daily hunger, struggle for documents, and lack of sleep? Refugees from the crop of modern wars have been around for decades with barely a twinge on the public consciousness.

This year, though, their desperation-fueled determination to survive has pushed through our collective acceptance of the status quo and has forced us to remember our neighbours.

"Remember" is a verb. It is an active thing, something we do that changes the present. Remembering our own past alters the way we view the context of our current lives. Remembering that we have neighbours who are in pain defines who we are. If that knowledge spurs us into the active decision to do nothing, then we will see ourselves as an insignificant sort of person who has no power to change our environment. If that remembering spurs us into actively trying to lift our neighbours' suffering, then we will see ourselves as someone with potential for heroics.

My first experience of a refugee camp was back in the late l990s when I traveled to Pakistan to meet with Afghans who had fled the Taliban. I never understood levels of poverty before that -- that a family living in a damp mud hut with cardboard floors and enough food for only one meal a day is vastly better off than a family who shares a rag tent with two other families and eats only once every three days.

We take for granted our ability to plan for the future. We make plans all the time, from what to have for dinner to what sort of a career we would like to when to get the family together for the next celebration. Not all our plans work out, but generally we have a reasonable expectation of being able to bring them to fruition.

So many of the refugees I've met around the world have lived with repeated disappointment. On-going disempowerment has taken away even their desire to plan because those plans have come to nothing. Their sense of future disappears and life becomes a series of agonizing moments, waiting, waiting, waiting.

To make a big difference in a refugee's life, give their children a school.

Save the Children recently participated in a study called "The Cost of War -- Calculating the Impact of the Collapse of Syria's Education System on Syria's Future". It says that the long-term cost to the Syrian economy of having over three million of its children never going back to school is more than two billion dollars. The cost to society is even greater.

A school says to a refugee child, "You have somewhere to go each day. You have someone who believes you can learn and who makes you sit up straight. You have an important job to do with your life and you are worth someone's time to see that you do it."

A school says to a refugee parent, "Your children are valuable to the world. Your journey to save them is a noble one. You are not alone, and the future will be better than the present."

When children are not in school they have fewer opportunities to watch themselves succeed at difficult tasks, fewer opportunities to explore the world beyond their present sight, and fewer chances to earn a living that will raise them out of exploitation.

What could be simpler than a school? What could be a better investment?

In 2000 the United Nations launched development goals aimed at lifting people out of the worst forms of poverty. Thanks to the building of more schools, the number of children not in school dropped by one third in ten years. At the end of that decade, though, those numbers started reversing. According to an article by Craig and Marc Kielburger, Canada's financial support for education in the developing world has been cut in half since 2010. This is at a time when the UN says 88 per cent of the world's poorest girls have not had the chance to complete their primary education, and when rage, chaos and war trauma have opened up space for extremism to march in.

We need to demand that those we elect this October promise to not just double our current contribution to education around the world, but quadruple it. The payoff will be greater than jewels, stocks, oil or precious metals. It might even be that we will collectively create a world where, when we think of a child on a beach, we think only of holiday.

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