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How war and years of lost education have devastated Syrian children — and what can be done to help

April 11, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
More than a third of schools in Syria have closed since the war began six years ago; a recent report found more than 1.7 million children and youth are not attending classes. David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the devastating effects of trauma and the long-term consequences of a generation of children missing out on quality education.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s return to the war in Syria, and focus on the effect it is having on children.

The schools have been devastated. More than a third have closed since the war began. And a recent report by the International Rescue Committee found more than 1.7 million children and youth are not attending classes.

That is the focus of our weekly segment Making the Grade.

And we’re joined by David Miliband the president of the International Rescue Committee. He recently visited the region and refugee children in Lebanon.

David Miliband, welcome back to the program.

We know this war has taken a terrible toll on lives in so many ways, but what is the main finding of your report on the effect on children and their ability to learn?

DAVID MILIBAND, CEO, International Rescue Committee: Thank you, Judy.

Well, the situation inside Syria is obviously top of the news because of the crushing and appalling chemical weapons attacks last week. But the long-term impact of six years of war on about 1.7 million children inside the country who are being denied education is obviously very grave indeed.

There is the fundamental stress, what is called the toxic stress, of being involved in a war. And for those inside the country, they’re denied the most basic access to education.

Obviously, that problem is doubled by the experience of the refugees who are out of the country, 5.5 million refugees out of the country, half of them kids, probably half of those not getting an education at all.

So, it is true to talk about a generation of Syrian schoolchildren being denied the most basic elements of an education. And, of course, that stands in stark contrast to the fact that they would have expected, in a middle-income country, which Syria was before 2011, to get a decent education.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does this mean? Based on this report that the International Rescue Committee has put together, what does this mean specifically in terms of children’s literacy, their ability to read, their ability to do basic math?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, we found that children in grades six, seven, eight, so children almost approaching teenage years, were unable to do the kind of sums or spelling that you would expect from a grade one student.

So, that’s what six years of education being lost means, never mind the huge blow to the children’s understanding and self-esteem that comes from seeing their country blown apart, and often their families blown apart as well.

And so I think that the message I would get across to your viewers is that the toll on children is almost greater than on any other group. But, secondly, never underestimate the resilience of the children and the ability of them, when given proper educational provision, to bounce back.

We, the International Rescue Committee, offer education in the north of Syria to children inside the country. We also offer education in the neighboring states.

And what we find is that, however hard the children have been hit, there’s a remarkable capacity to bounce back, if they’re given proper help. And that makes international humanitarian aid especially important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is proper help? What does that consist of? And what can be done about this? Because people are certainly looking for ways out of this war, but, if anything, that looks harder than ever today.

DAVID MILIBAND: You’re right about the huge diplomatic effort that’s going to be necessary.

But, on the humanitarian front, and especially the educational front, there are two things that are essential. First of all, there’s no point in pretending that kids who have been through a war are like any other first grader or fifth grader turning up for school. They need proper attention to their social and emotional resources.

What’s called the toxic stress that they have suffered is effectively brain damage and/or what would be called amongst adults PTSD. And these children need to have that addressed before they’re able to access learning.

However, in addition to those social and emotional skills and resources that they need to build up, they also need the basic elements of an education.

And our argument is that, at a time when the overall humanitarian budget is under huge stress, at a time when less than 2 percent of the global humanitarian budget is spent on education, that is the worst possible time for the administration in Washington to be talking about one-third cuts, 31 percent cuts in America’s contribution to humanitarian aid, because America has often marked itself out for its commitment on the humanitarian front. And those children in Syria who we surveyed, they need America’s help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying there’s a direct link between what the U.S. does in terms of foreign aid and the long-term repercussions, survival of these children, and their ability to be functioning human beings?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, you don’t need to just take my word for it. I lead a humanitarian organization, so you might expect me to say that humanitarian aid is important.

But just listen to the U.S. defense secretary, Secretary Mattis. He’s very clear, as a military man, that military effort on its own, it needs to be — is not enough on its own. It needs to be allied obviously to diplomatic effort, but also to humanitarian and development efforts as well.

And those three aspects of American foreign policy, the military, the diplomacy and the humanitarian development, need to go together.

And so the suggestion from the administration that now is the time to slash America’s leadership on humanitarian aid seems extremely misguided. We’re living through the world’s — certainly this century’s worst civil war in Syria. We know there are four famines that are hitting parts of Africa. The global refugee crisis is at its height.

Humanitarian aid is an essential commitment to the future of those children, but it’s also a stabilizer of the societies from which they come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you mentioned the defense secretary, James Mattis. In fact, he said at his news conference today that the U.S. — it sounded as if what he was saying was that, unless there is another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime, at this point, the U.S. has no further plan to intervene militarily.

What does that mean for the efforts of groups like the International Rescue Committee?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, we can report from the ground that our staff — I have got about 1,400 staff working for the International Rescue Committee inside Syria.

They rushed towards that chemical weapons attack in an ambulance. They rescued 10 people, took them to a hospital in Idlib, and saved their lives. But, obviously, they are in fear not just of chemical weapons attacks, but conventional weapons attacks as well.

And so my message from the ground would be that we — it’s incumbent on American political leadership to make stop the killing the central demand that is made of all the actors in the conflict. Until we stop the killing, then not only will the humanitarian situation get worse, but the prospects for any kind of durable peace evaporate as well.

And my fear from the ground is that, in the few days since the chemical weapons attacks, there’s actually been an intensification of the conventional weapons warfare. And that’s obviously cold comfort to anyone on the ground trying to live their life inside Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it was clear today, again, just quickly, in listening to Secretary Mattis, that the administration is right now drawing a line between responding if there is a chemical weapons attack, but something very different if it’s short of, even if it’s barrel bombs on civilians.

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, obviously, as a leader of a humanitarian organization, it’s not for me to advocate one military tactic or another.

What I can say is that the situation on the ground is grave and getting worse, that the cease-fires that are being proclaimed at various points haven’t held at all, and that, with 500,000 dead, 5.5 million refugees, it’s well past the time when Syria wasn’t just a humanitarian emergency, but it was a political emergency as well.

It’s a source of massive instability across the Middle East and into Europe. And that calls for the highest levels of diplomatic and political engagement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, thank you.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you so much.

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