Meeting the Challenge of Education for Syrian Refugee Children

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Meridian Global Leadership Summit
Washington, DC
October 16, 2015

Good morning. Thank you all so much for welcoming me here today. I’m very grateful to Stu Holliday, Lee Satterfield, and the entire team at the Meridian International Center, not only for bringing us together today, but for what you’re doing every single day to foster a new generation of inspired, engaged, and connected global leaders.

I also want to say it is wonderful to be with Chairman Ed Royce and Congressman Elliot Engel, two of the preeminent leaders in Washington on foreign policy, and maybe even more important than Chairman Ed Royce is Marie Royce, who has been such an extraordinary leader of this institution and the work that goes on here. So it is great to be with all of you today.

But mostly I want to say that the work that Meridian does would not be possible without everyone in this room and the organizations, companies, and countries that each you represent. So thank you very, very much. We are incredibly proud of our partnerships, and we’re especially proud of the talented professionals and students that they support and that they nurture.

One of the great benefits of the job I have is that I get to travel around the world. On every trip that I take, I make it a point to meet with graduates of these leadership programs and our exchange programs. And I have to tell you, breaking out of a government conference room and actually meeting with young people who had the benefit of being on one of these programs is almost invariably one of the highlights of any trip. We get a chance to talk about their experiences, their ideas, their plans for the future, their vision for their own countries—and, almost without fail, what I hear is a story of how these programs, more than anything else, has changed their lives, changed their vision, inspired them, energized them—in extraordinary ways.

With every meeting, it is also increasingly clear to me that diplomacy no longer belongs just to the diplomats. It belongs to the scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, students, and innovators. They are, quite literally, on the front lines of diplomacy every day.

It belongs to the fashion design team that helped create brand new suits for Ebola health care workers in West Africa. It belongs to exchange students in China who bring with them habits of critical thinking and innovation. It belongs to entrepreneurs whose start-ups are not only creating jobs but surfacing local solutions to global problems.

I think as many of you know, President Obama is a firm believer in the power and the potential of all of these communities to collaborate, to build bridges, and to meet challenges together. We had more than 140,000 young people from across Africa join our Youth Africa Leaders Initiative, and more than 33,000 young people have joined the Southeast Asian equivalent. It is extraordinary, and part of our problem is figuring out how to keep connected the people who have been so enthusiastic about these initiatives, but who we couldn’t bring to the United States. But beyond these programs, every single year our Bureau for Education and Cultural Affairs sponsors over 140 programs and supports 300,000 people to come to the United States.

This is truly a secret weapon of our diplomacy. Because hidden in these numbers is extraordinary potential. Today, more than 360 alumni of our exchange programs went on to become the presidents or prime minister of their countries. Think about it. Our embassies went out and identified these people where they were not presidents or prime ministers, but they saw the potential. They saw the talent. Seventy-seven went on to win Nobel Prizes. And of course thousands more are leaders of industry, academia, business, science, and the arts. These programs have an immediate impact, but they also have a generational impact, because they create connections—with our country, with our people—that last far into the future. And what I found talking to people about the benefit of being in an exchange program was that 9 out of 10—sometimes 10 out of 10—come away with a great understanding of the United States, and usually a greater appreciation for our country and what it represents. That is incredibly powerful.

As a global community, we have some big aspirations for the years ahead and quite a few challenges—to state the obvious—that we have to overcome. Fighting climate change, ending extreme poverty, building sustainable cities, advancing human rights. These goals affect each of us, and they require solutions from all of us.

What I want to do with the time that I have this morning is speak about just one of these challenges—one where I think this community, in particular, could make an enormous difference.

Because even as we celebrate the high-quality education and professional opportunities that we enjoy and we benefit from, we know—all too well—that they are beyond the reach of many, many people.

This is true around the world—whether in Afghanistan, in South Sudan—but it is especially, especially true today in Syria, as families flee their homes in the desperate search for refuge from war, but also in search of a future for their children.

For nearly five years now, the tragedy of this crisis has fallen most heavily on the smallest shoulders. Children who once looked forward to careers as doctors, as scientists, as entrepreneurs now struggle to find enough food to eat or clothing to keep warm. Their homes and schools have been bombed out of existence by Assad’s regime. Their lives have been imperiled by ISIL and violent extremism.

In Turkey, in Lebanon, in Jordan—more than 700,000 school-age Syrian refugee children are living in camps or communities without access to education. The number is even higher inside of Syria, where more than 2 million children are out of school.

Without school, these children are at risk of being exploited as laborers or forced into sex work. Without school, children who have lost nearly everything are now literally in danger of losing their futures. The lack of education is one of the primary reasons families flee onward, not just from Syria, but onward from Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan into Europe—risking their lives on fierce seas or packing themselves into the sealed trucks of smugglers.

This is a time of unparalleled need, and so our response globally needs to be unprecedented.

We need communities, we need companies, we need individuals to pitch in with the same extraordinary generosity that we witness in the aftermath of earthquakes or tsunami, because for a generation of Syrian children, this crisis is a tsunami without the water, a five-year hurricane without wind.

The situation is particularly acute in the neighboring host countries—Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan—and what they have done is extraordinary. They have opened their doors to Syrians despite the enormous strain that it places on their public services and on the social fabric.

And having spent time in all three of those countries, I’ve seen it firsthand. In Lebanon today, there are more Syrian children in Lebanese public schools than there are Lebanese. And that doesn’t account for the many, many children who unfortunately are not in school.

So even as we work every day to end the conflict in Syria and to end the crisis, we are trying to bring our humanitarian and development teams together to get children back into school, while also benefiting the communities that host them. And therein lies one of the solutions over time. We have a divide in the way we think about these problems, between the folks that do emergency humanitarian assistance, and the folks that do long-term development. We need to bring them together. It’s not quite creating lemonade out of a lemon, but if you can bring assistance to these host communities that benefit the communities themselves as well as the refugees, you can at least make it more sustainable, more bearable, and you can bring real improvement and real change to the lives of both the refugees and the local community.

We’re also working with heroic partners on the ground to renovate classrooms, support informal learning opportunities, provide psychosocial care, and help schools manage double and even triple shifts.

I spent some time in Lebanon with one of the amazing organizations that does some of this work—Caritas—and they are literally counseling in different rooms: the fathers, the mothers, and the children. When you spend time with the fathers, the overall impression you get was one of depression more than anything else. These are proud people who were working, had jobs, had a future—and that has been taken away from them, and their dignity has been stripped from them along with everything else. Then you go and talk to the mothers, and they are absolutely fixated on one thing: providing for their children and figuring out a way to keep them in school.

The challenge for these mothers and fathers is particularly acute because in any of these places, particularly Lebanon, they are not in refugee camps. So you think at first that it is a good thing, and in many ways of course it is, but when you are in a host community you come from Syria with whatever savings you have and over time those savings are depleted. You can’t work because you can’t get a work permit, so if you do work, you’re underground. You can’t get your kids to school and you can’t pay for a place to live. This just builds, and builds, and builds.

The only hopeful thing actually is talking to the children, because they still have that incredible spirit and they still have a sense of hope and optimism. That, at least, is incredibly energizing and inspiring.

So even for all of the efforts that we have been making—we have been the single largest contributor to humanitarian efforts to Syria and the neighboring countries, but there is still much more that we need to do. There is a lot more that each of us can do. What we really need are partnerships to try and scale up these efforts, to actually answer the huge demand that there is, starting with education. New technologies to support vulnerable learners. New innovations to help teachers. New commitments to dramatically expand our ability to reach each and every student.

When a comprehensive political solution is reached in Syria, it will mean more than the end of the war. It will be the beginning of an effort to rebuild a nation—a monumental task that will fall to the millions of children whose existence is so fragile today. So what happens to them will define the course of their country and the world beyond for decades to come.

And I think all of you know, better than anyone else, that nations do not succeed when they bomb, attack, or repress their own people.

That is not strength. That is not stability.

And governments that do not uphold their fundamental responsibility—to protect the lives of their own citizens, to protect their rights, and cultivate their potential—starting with education—those countries will not succeed, those countries will not flourish.

If you asked an academic or a historian 25 years ago, 50 years ago, what makes up the wealth of a nation, you would probably get some variation on this answer: well, it’s the size of the country, the expanse of its land mass, the strength of its military, the abundance of its natural resources.

All of those things are still important and in the United States we are blessed with all of them.

But now if you really think about what makes the wealth of a nation, it is its human resource, and the ability of a country to take the steps necessary to allow that that resource to reach its full potential. To think, to debate, to argue, to create, to innovate, and even to fail.

The countries that do that are going to do very, very well in the 21st century, and the ones that don’t, will not.

That is truly the strength and wealth of nations.

This is the work that all of you do and do with such extraordinary commitment and talent.

A great challenge is before us now, and it will take all of our engagement, our leadership, and our creativity is to help chart a future for these children who right now do not have one—and so many like them around the world. To give them the support and education they need to grow up as the artists, as astronauts, as diplomats, as engineers, and even noble prize winners that we know they’ll become.

So I can’t emphasize enough how grateful we are for what you are doing every day, because in some ways even more than you know it is the foundation for everything we hope for in the future. And today if I could leave you with one particular thought, it is to help us deal with this education challenge that we face in Syria and the countries beyond. It would be a wonderful, wonderful thing to do.

Thank you so much for everything you are doing.