Bridging the Education Gap for Refugee Children in Turkey

Heather Higginbottom
Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources 
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough
Washington, DC
November 16, 2015

DEPUTY SECRETARY HIGGINBOTTOM: Ambassadors and distinguished colleagues and guests, it is a sincere privilege to welcome you to the State Department.

I’m not, as you might’ve guessed, Deputy Secretary Tony Blinken. When Secretary Kerry’s travel plans changed so he could be in Vienna to push for an end to the conflict and a political transition for Syria, he asked Deputy Secretary Blinken to represent our nation at the APEC summit in Manila today. But I know how much Tony wanted to be here.

The importance of our shared efforts to affirm the value of each and every human life has excruciating clarity in the aftermath of evil. Our hearts break for those in Paris, in Beirut, and in other places around the world where vile acts of terror have extinguished life and assaulted our communities. Yet even in the depth of our mourning, we are not swayed from our determination to defend and preserve the very values under threat – values that are strengthened through a quality education for all children, but especially those who live in the midst of crisis and conflict.

There’s no one for whom this belief carries greater weight than President Obama. This morning we are so fortunate to have with us White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who made it a special priority to be here today. Denis has been a fixture of White House national security policy from day one. He has served as deputy national security advisor, as chief of staff of the National Security Staff, and as the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications.

But, as I think many of you know, it’s not his staff positions that have set Denis apart. It is the strength of his character. I’ve been honored to know Denis for some time now, and there is not a day when I have not seen him fight with all his might and all his heart for a world of greater compassion, security, and human dignity.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. (Applause.)

MR MCDONOUGH: Well, good morning, everybody, and thank you, Heather, for that very, very overly generous introduction. Heather and I have been through a lot of great fights together, and we just spent the afternoon on Friday in the Situation Room working on Syrian refugees, an effort that would – we continue to make hard-earned gains on, particularly because of Heather’s excellent work.

I too want to thank Tony for the great work that he’s doing on this. Tony emailed me last week as soon as he got the call to head to the Philippines to ask if I could come over, given how much he has invested in this effort, working with each of you. And I was only too glad to do so, having heard both Antony’s voice and seeing in his writing in the email how strongly he feels about this.

So I thank each of you as well for putting your shoulder to this incredibly important wheel as we continue to face, as Heather said, the aftermath of evil in all of its manifestations here regarding the situation in Syria.

As the President said on Friday night as the terrible attacks in Paris were unfolding and then reiterated yesterday at the G20 in Turkey, the attacks in Paris were an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share. Fitting, then, that we’re gathered here in the Franklin Room. Ben Franklin is known as our country’s first diplomat, serving initially in Paris from 1776 to 1778 to engender what ultimately became the critical French support for our independence, and then, having presented his credentials to the French court in 1779, becoming President Washington’s and the independent United States’s first ambassador to France.

So France has had our back, as it were, since day one. And I can say on behalf of the President that France has every right to expect that we will have its back today. Vive le France.

So today, as this group of leaders, each of you from government, from tech companies, from other companies, from nonprofits and foundations come together to explore how we provide the 400,000 school-aged children in Turkey access to education, you too are putting your shoulder to this very important wheel. Think about that yourselves as you send your kids off to school this morning: 400,000 kids in Turkey don’t have that access. It’s an issue of great importance to the President and it was on the agenda today at the G20 in Turkey.

In just about an hour we’ll hear from the President about our redoubled determination to deepen cooperation and destroy – with France and with others to destroy ISIL, whose treachery obviously knows no bounds. And while the United States and our global coalition does just that, this group has a critical role to play as well. We have to ensure that we do not allow ISIL to steal the futures of these 400,000 kids who have already had part of their childhood stolen as they were forced to flee from their homes and from their school classrooms due to violence from ISIL and from the Assad regime.

Your work won’t be easy, but it’s worth it because those kids are Syria’s future – not ISIL, not Assad, but those kids. And the talent that’s gathered in this room has done even harder things in the past, so we have every confidence that your session today will take the next step in meeting this challenge.

And I can assure you that you will continue to have a partner in this State Department and this White House in this effort. We will do our part on this even as we do our part on addressing the historic refugee challenge facing the United States and the world around the globe, including from Syria.

Since the days of Franklin, this country has been the refuge for the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free. It’s part of who we are. It’s what we do. And President Obama, irrespective of the political winds in Washington, will not let ISIL change that in us.

Many of the individuals and families who have fled Syria are fleeing precisely the type of violence and brutality that occurred in Paris on Friday night. Just as it has throughout our history, it continues to serve both our interest and our values to assist and provide safe haven to refugees and other vulnerable populations fleeing conflict. These people have much to contribute to this nation, to the world, and to the community of nations. Closing our doors and turning a blind eye to populations who continue to be in great need is not the answer.

We don’t have to choose one set of interests at the expense of another here. We will work with our friends to manage a global migrant and humanitarian crisis, just as we will provide our partners in Europe support to enhance border controls, security vetting, and information sharing. And to fulfill our traditional American role of continuing to provide refuge, we will continue to implement the security screening and vetting processes that have been significantly enhanced over the past years thanks to the work of Heather and others. All refugees will continue to be subject to security and background checks based on the latest technology and relying on the resources of this building, the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, and the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

Together, we will continue to meet these challenges. And working with you, we will meet the challenge of educating Syrian children seeking refuge in Turkey, and we will continue our work to destroy ISIL as we work with our partners to facilitate political transition in Syria. As we are determined and committed, we will reap the benefits of these investments in the future in Syria and in the broader region.

So we have a heavy task, an important task today. I thank you for taking it on and I wish you only luck and our continued support as you do so. I thank you very much. Heather, thanks very much. (Applause.)

DEPUTY SECRETARY HIGGINBOTTOM: Thank you so much, Denis. I’d like to invite everyone to take a seat. We have a few speakers, and we need you to make all – keep all of your energy and focus for the hard work we have ahead of us. So, please. Great, thank you.

When we were planning today’s event, we wanted to make sure that it would take place in this very room. As Denis said, this is the Ben Franklin Room, named after our nation’s first diplomat and one of the most brilliant scientific and literary minds in American history.

Ben Franklin charted the Gulf Stream. He pioneered the study of electricity. And he helped forge a new ethos of self-government that shaped our young nation.

In other words, he was a problem-solver, one of our history’s, one of our nation’s greatest.

There wasn’t a flash of lightning or a gust of wind or even a drop of liquor that didn’t pique his intense curiosity. He looked at problems in new ways – not as difficulties over which to despair, but as challenges to be solved.

And today, I can’t imagine a setting more fitting or a spirit more apt to inspire and strengthen the sense of purpose for which we come together.

A little over a year ago, I visited a refugee camp near Adana, and I met families who had lost their homes, children who’d lost their parents, and parents who had lost sons and daughters.

I met only a few dozen people that day, but we know there are 16 million people like them who have been affected by the tragedy of the Syrian crisis. As you’ll hear this morning, 7 million of them are children – a number almost too difficult to fathom.

But these are not just numbers.

These are children clinging to stuffed animals whose entire worlds have been crammed into small backpacks hanging from their weary shoulders.

These are women who have seen bombs destroy their neighborhoods and felt hunger eat away at their courage.

These are men anxious to find safety, a good job, and new beginnings for their families against all odds. Forced to flee their homes, these families hope beyond hope they will find safe places to start over.

Thanks in great part to your organizations many of them have found shelter and a safe place. Since the beginning of this crisis, the United States has worked with our partners in this room and across the region to provide over $4.5 billion in humanitarian assistance to help address dire conditions, expand access to education, and strengthen the resilience of host communities in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan that have so generously opened their doors to those in need.

We are incredibly grateful to our friends and partners in Turkey for the leadership and compassion that they have shown in hosting more than 2 million refugees from Syria and thousands of others from around the world.

An example to nations, Turkey has committed itself to providing formal education for children and enshrining this as a right in its laws on the temporary protection of Syrians.

Recognizing that the task of finding classroom spaces for hundreds of thousands of children is enormous, Turkey is looking to us here today and the organizations that you represent to help bridge this gap.

This is, I have to say, a little bit of an unusual event for us.

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

But not today.

Today we are honored to hear from distinguished speakers who have traveled great distances to help set the stage for this morning’s conversation.

We’ll hear lightning talks from two experts who will speak with specificity to the details of the challenges that we must address, and then we’ll break into a reception for an informal discussion on the ideas and partnerships we have in mind.

To begin this morning, I’m thrilled to welcome Dr. Ali Ozturk, advisor to the deputy prime minister with responsibility for managing the Syrian crisis response; Dr. Anthony Lake, the executive director of UNICEF; and Meighan Stone, president of the Malala Fund. Dr. Ozturk, the floor is yours.

Thank you. (Applause.)