Nadia (holding baby) and her family live in a refugee camp after fleeing attacks on their village in Iraq. "I miss school the most," she says.
Every Christmas, my son writes a letter to Santa. He describes the many good things he's done this year, including working very hard at school. Gavin's letter makes the case for at least two or three presents, based largely on the strength of his classroom performance.
From the perspective of many Canadian children, this argument makes some sense. They've been attending school regularly, working hard and earning good grades. From a global perspective, however, the chance to succeed in school is a gift in itself -- a gift that millions of children didn't receive this year.
It's true that most governments in developing countries provide education for children. And there's no doubt that millions of children overseas are intelligent, hard-working and yearning to succeed. But let's consider the many challenges which children in the world's poorest regions face when trying to attend school.
Here are seven reasons why some children overseas may not have done well in school this year:
- natural disasters that destroy school buildings
- poor harvests, prompting parents to pull children from school to earn money
- droughts that force children to fetch water from far-off water points, eating into school time
- families' need to migrate due to natural disasters or conflict
- illnesses such as malaria that keep children home
- the death of a parent, forcing children to take on greater responsibility at home
- outdated, irrelevant textbooks or approaches that don't engage children enough to entice them to school
Children in this Zambian community often miss school to help with farm work, falling behind on their studies.
If you reflect back on many of the natural disasters and civil conflicts covered in the news this year, you'll likely remember a few situations where attending school would have been impossible. Here are some:
- Thousands of schools were destroyed in the Philippines in November, 2013, when Typhoon Haiyan pummeled many areas of that country. Many children have been out of school during the rebuilding phase.
- South Sudanese families have fled their home communities due to violent civil conflict in their country, meaning children's education was abruptly cut short.
- Thousands of parents in Africa have died due to Ebola, forcing children into situations of added responsibility, caring for siblings or helping out at home.
Childen in the Philippines spread their books to dry in the sun, in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan last year. Many schools were destroyed in the disaster.
Once children who've endured challenges like these are able to return to school, it's clear that every single day spent there must count. Many will be behind in their lessons, some by years. Some will be pulled away again, for one of the reasons on the list.
It's tragic to think that, once they do return to school, children will are often unable to learn because books and school supplies are in short supply -- or because they're weak from hunger and struggling to concentrate.
Before Santa whisks away my son's letter while he's sleeping on Christmas Eve, I think I'll take a little time to read it with him. Perhaps we'll talk a bit about school, the great work that he's done this year, and all the things that he's enjoyed about it.
And before Gavin goes to sleep, perhaps we'll steal to the computer, and give an online gift to children overseas who didn't get a chance to show Santa how "good" they were this year by performing well in school. We'll visit one of the gift catalogues, like World Vision Gifts. By stocking a classroom with school supplies, providing books, or funding school lunches to fuel hungry learners, we'll share something wonderful with children for whom every day spent in school must count.
School lunches paid for through the World Vision gift catalogue help children in Vietnam concentrate on their studies.
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