Remarks at a Refugee Education Workshop at Stanford University

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Stanford, CA
January 29, 2016

Thank you all very much. It is an honor to be here. It is especially wonderful to have this opportunity to spend some time with Mike [McFaul] and some other colleagues from administrations that I have worked in. Something is very wrong though, as I was told not to wear a tie, and here Mike is wearing a tie. We spent a lot of effort making sure we got this right.

It is a great pleasure to be 2,814.5 miles away from Washington. I know you hear it a lot, that this is a special place, but that has been reinforced by the last twenty-four hours or so as I’ve talked to a lot of people in this community. The people in this room, the people in this community, are coming together to solve big problems, but you get to solve them in blue jeans, which is a very big advantage over what we do in Washington.

In particular, I’m finding when I ask people here what it is they do for a living, the answer that you get is actually what their passion is, not what their job is. That is very powerful, and the evidence is in this room today.

We have among you humanitarians, coders, policymakers, hackers, innovators, and educators—all united not by your professions, but by your passion to shape a world that is just a little bit more compassionate, a little bit more secure, a little bit more filled with human dignity.

I want to join Mike in expressing my deepest thanks to our co-hosts: FSI, the World Affairs Council—Jane, it is great to be with you here today. We were colleagues back in the Clinton Administration—the Global Philanthropy Forum, and Google.

When our team at State proposed throwing a full-day workshop for more than a hundred people with only four weeks’ notice, our fellow organizations did not hesitate, you jumped right in. It is testament, of course, not only to their leadership but the extraordinary degree to which they care and you care about the issue that has brought us together.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit Google, where we saw displayed on a large screen the currents and tides of refugee flows across the planet today. It is an extraordinary visual representation of what is a crisis. We throw around terms like crisis and historic every day—but this is historic; this is a crisis. As you looked at these rivers of humanity emerging on the screen and growing—from Somalia, from Yemen, from Syria, from Afghanistan, from so many other places—you saw the impact of this global crisis in a way that data or stories don’t convey themselves.

This great wave of displacement is fundamentally remaking the world we live in—changing our economies, putting pressure on national borders, affecting our sense of security, and most of all, challenging all of us to live up to our common humanity.

I think many of you know that if you put all the refugees in the world today in one country, it would be the 24th largest country in the world. Larger than South Korea. Larger than Spain. That is just one measure of the magnitude of the problem that we are facing.

One in every 122 people on this planet have fled their homes from conflict, violence, or persecution—traveling possibly along the very same pathways that our own parents or grandparents or great-grandparents took to find sanctuary from war and a future for all of us.

I think the other truth that we know is that across the world, the most severe consequences of all this suffering and displacement have fallen most heavily on the smallest shoulders.

In Syria, schools have been bombed. Teachers have been killed. And families are fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their children in their arms.

Since 2011, more than 12 million people have been forced to flee Asad’s fury and ISIL’s vengeance. They’ve fled to other parts of Syria and of course they’ve fled to neighboring countries, where they’re straining the resources of generous host communities. Some fled even farther afield along deadly migration routes in the heart of winter.

To put it in terms we can identify with, it is as if every student in the 45 largest school districts in the United States—including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago—had been uprooted by violence, hunger, or disease all at once. That is the magnitude of the problem.

What we are grappling with—what so many of you are grappling with—is a real challenge, because what is driving people out of Syria in the first instance is the violence, the conflict. That has a lot of consequences: schools destroyed, teachers killed, and so an inability to go to school, which is the second driver . And the third driver is a lack of access to employment. If your town or village has been destroyed and the entire economic infrastructure has been wiped out, you won’t have a job to go to. So those are the three things that are driving people out of Syria.

When they get to Turkey or Lebanon or Jordan, the good news is that the violence driver is taken away, but the challenge of education and employment remains. Even in these incredibly generous countries, the inability to put kids in school or find jobs for parents is a driver of onward migration—to Europe and places even further afield.

To put this in perspective, in Lebanon somewhere between one quarter and one-third of the population today is Syrian. There are more Syrian children in Lebanese public schools than there are Lebanese. Step back and think for a second: what if that was us? How would we respond to a problem of that magnitude in this country?

Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have all been extraordinarily resilient when faced with these kinds of numbers, but there is a limit to that resilience. There is a limit to that capacity. And even as hundreds of thousands of children are in school today, hundreds of thousands are not, and that is a problem that we have to solve.

Because without school, this generation of Syrian children will simply not have the skills or the knowledge to be productive members of whatever society they end up in. They will not have the skills and knowledge to hopefully one day go home when the Syrian civil war is over and rebuild their country.

Even worse, without school they will be at risk of being exploited as forced laborers, forced into prostitution, into early marriage, and some will be susceptible to the siren call of extremism.

Then you wind up in a cycle—this generation, then the next generation. If we don’t interrupt that cycle, it is a humanitarian catastrophe, but also in terms of pure self-interest, it is going to be a national security catastrophe as well for us and countries in the region. We have to break this cycle.

The other thing we have to recognize from the start in terms of thinking about this problem is the very tight connection between the employment and the education question.

If you are a leader or politician in Lebanon or Jordan or Turkey, it is not so easy to go to your people and say “You know what, I want to give jobs to a lot of Syrian refugees even though you some of you don’t have jobs.” So in these countries, in various ways, it is difficult to get a work permit.

So then what happens if parents can’t work is that children are pushed into the informal economy where they work for even worse wages and in worse conditions than the indigenous population. They become the breadwinners, but it means that when they are working, they are not at school. So until we address the employment problem, we probably will not be able to fully fix the education problem.

I was in Beirut a few months ago and went to an extraordinary place run by one of these terrific organizations doing this work every day: Caritas.

By the way, when you are on the ground in any of these countries and you see the work of these NGOs, the work of these UN agencies—UNHCR, UNICEF, so many others—it is one of the most inspiring experiences you can have. To those who doubt the value or the importance of the UN system, just go take a look at the lives that are being saved and the futures that are being rescued every single day.

But in Beirut, I went to a counseling center run by Caritas that was providing housing to Syrian refugees. It was really all there in this one place in a nutshell. They had the men in one room, the women and mothers in another, and children in a third.

Here is what really stands out. The men looked beaten down. Their dignity had been stripped from them. They had jobs and had been providing for their family back home in Syria. That had been taken away from them. They were no longer able to put food on the table. That was eating away at their sense of self-worth and dignity.

Keep in mind, most of the refugees that we are talking about in these countries are not in refugee camps. They are more or less integrated into host communities. On one hand that sounds like a good thing, because when we think of refugee camps there is not a particularly attractive picture that we have in mind, but if you are in a refugee camp at least you have a roof over your head, a place to sleep, some clothing, some food. If you have to fend for yourself in a host community, none of that is guaranteed. If you are coming from Syria with whatever savings you have, those savings are depleted and you can’t get a job; that is a huge dilemma.

So you move over to the next room and listened to women who were absolutely fixated on one thing: their children. How they are going to get their son or daughter in school? How are they going to keep them in school? How are they going to pay for the registration?

And then I spoke to the children—and it was remarkable. Despite the hardships they had endured, despite the trauma that many have suffered, they still had—at age 6, 7, 8—an infectious sense of hope and optimism and possibility. They were kids, and they hadn’t lost that. That spirit, that resilience, that courage was also grounded in faith in those they look up to for support and for help in reclaiming their future.

What is that hand they’re reaching out for? It belongs to all of us.

So I think no one is better positioned to help, no one is better equipped with passion and also the tools to respond, than our own innovation generation. That is what brings me out here and what brings us all together today. We have an extraordinary reservoir of expertise and imagination and innovation, much of it represented here in this room today.

This is the community right here that put the power of a satellite into the palm of our hands and the bounty of the world’s libraries in every rural school.

This is the community that built global social networks that can help detect an epidemic before it starts and ring alarms over electoral rigging before it’s too late.

This is the community that understands that talent is everywhere—but opportunity is not.

And this is the community that not only imagines solutions for the challenges we face—but then sits right down and builds them.

We need that depth of passion and ingenuity today.

What we found out over the past year is that, despite a massive effort, our existing resources and responses are simply not enough. The magnitude of the problem is greater than the solutions that we bring to bear at the moment.

Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, the United States has worked with our partners here in this room, across the region, and across the globe to provide over $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid to help alleviate suffering, expand access to education, and strengthen the resilience of host communities that have so generously opened their doors.

This coming September, President Obama will convene a high-level summit on the refugee crisis and he will put access to education front and center. We’ve set very clear targets for what we want to accomplish globally between now and September. We want to bring more resources to bear from the international community because there are more countries around the world not contributing up to their means that we want to get engaged.

On resettlement policy, many of us are falling short of what we could, and should, be doing. And so the President has set a challenge to double the number of resettlement slots around that world that are available between now and the end of the year.

The other big goal of the summit meeting is to make sure that we have, in a very practical way, expanded access to employment and education to one million additional refugees in each category.

All of you working on this know that there are no silver bullet solutions. The technical and political challenges that prevent children from going to school are vast and varied, but we are convinced that they are surmountable. In fact, many of them raise questions of design and delivery—questions that this community in particular uniquely knows how to tackle.

I have to say—this is something of an unusual event for us at the State Department.

In most cases, we host discussions or conversation or conferences where we ask our participants to simply listen instead of problem-solve.

But not today.

If we are going to tackle this challenge—we are going to have to work in practical ways to make a meaningful difference the lives of nearly three million out-of-school Syrian children and millions more around the world. To do that we need the innovation community to inform and energize our foreign policy at the highest levels of government.

We need our foreign policy leaders to be able to benefit directly from your creativity, and we need to give all of you a window into our decision-making to better inform the way that you approach these problems.

I don’t know that there is a topic covered more in the White House Situation Room right now than Syria, in all of its manifestations—or a crisis that presses more heavily on the minds of President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who work 35 hours a day to push for an end to conflict and a political transition for Syria.

When a comprehensive solution is reached—and it will be—it will mean more than the end of 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.

No single government, organization, or country can address this challenge alone. In this time of unparalleled need, we all have a role and a responsibility to respond.

One aspect of this that is going to be critical is that we are well-organized and well-coordinated. What I have heard even within the last 24 hours is an extraordinary array of interesting solutions to practical problems, whether it be education for refugees or providing employment, but we are often in the situation where we don’t know what other groups are working on.

But we want to help stimulate your creative juices. We are proud to announce a $1.7 million prize competition to develop a smartphone app that can help Syrian children learn how to read and improve their wellbeing. We are doing this together with the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, World Vision, the Australian government, the mobile operator Orange, and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies. Together we will select up to five winners for apps that build foundational literacy skills for children ages five through ten, and we’ll chose up to two of those apps for wide release.

To those of you in that business: get going, the challenge is on.

This is but only one of the countless ways that you can make a difference in this crisis.

We need to scale up existing efforts that we know already work—like expanding the constellation of non-formal education centers or providing stipends to Syrian teachers who can help fill the enormous demand for trained and talented instructors.

We need new partnerships—school to school, university to university—with students in the region so that we’re building the bridges that deepen our education as much as theirs.

And we continue to need game-changing new ideas—like classrooms on wheels or extra lessons on podcast or virtual schools.

Ultimately, a challenge this immense, this historic, this urgent will not be solved without the leadership of an entire generation—this innovation generation.

One of the great benefits of the job I am in now is traveling around the world and meeting not just in my counterparts in government, but with people from all walks of life—including a lot of people who come to the United States on exchange programs. I’ve also tried to meet with a lot of innovators and entrepreneurs.

Two things have stood out in those meetings. Even when we are in a terrible argument with another country about a policy that we are pursuing, what remains is a profound attraction to American education, American innovation, and American entrepreneurship. It is across the board one of the greatest strengths of this country and it is one of the greatest strengths of our foreign policy.

The other thing that stands out is that when I ask exchange students what surprised them, what did they most enjoy that they had not expected during their time in the United States, I get the same answer time and time again: volunteerism. It is one of the most important things that has a tremendous impact on people.

When you marry these two things, an incredible capacity for innovation and creativity with that spirit of volunteerism, you have one of the most powerful weapons in the world to tackle its most daunting challenges.

I was in Jordan at the end of last year, sitting with a group of Syrian refugees—kids who were 15, 16, 17—and they had a real vision for what they wanted to do with their lives. They all had specific careers that they were looking at and they all spoke with great clarity and great passion about it.

So I was curious about the extent to which they had access to computers, and what was interesting was that virtually all of them did. Some of them had access to computers at the UNICEF-run community center, but also had access to a smartphone in their family.

As we were talking about that, I asked how many of them knew about the iPhone, and of course pretty much all of them raised their hands. And I asked them if they knew what company made the iPhone, and then said “Oh, of course Apple.” Then I asked them if they knew who founded Apple. They thought for a second and then one correctly answered Steve Jobs. So I asked if they knew where Steve Jobs’ father came from and was met with silence. The answer of course is Syria.

Every young person in that room could be the next Steve Jobs. Our job is to give them that opportunity.