Education of Refugee Children towards Peace

April 13, 2016 - UN Vienna
At-the-UN/Vienna/Education-towards-Peace
By: Gabriele Zoehrer

Leaving no One Behind

Good afternoon dear Ladies and Gentlemen!

During 2015 a total of one million men, women and children made the hazardous journey to Europe in seek of refuge, Leon Siciliano wrote in an article published by The Telegraph on 29th Jan. 2016.

According to a UNICEF report in 2016 (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, since 1953 United Nations Children's Fund), an estimated 30 million children are on the run today, fleeing brutal violence, extreme poverty or both. This figure includes millions of children caught in conflict in Syria, Iraq, Yemen - more than a dozen countries; children driven from their homes and forced to make difficult and dangerous journeys abroad, children who are out of school and don't know when they might return.

Around the world, a total of 59 million primary school children are not in the classroom, and the number is growing. Across the Middle East and North Africa, about 13 million children are not in school because of conflict and war. Nearly 9,000 schools in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya are not in use because they have been damaged or destroyed!

Facing such huge numbers, we, the world community, are challenged to safeguard, shelter, educate and provide for those minors. The children completely depend on our help, especially those who are on their own, having lost their family members due to injury, death or other causes. If we don`t act now, "…this generation of displaced innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war." The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states.

Refugee children don't have a voice on their own. They are just the innocent victims of countries at war. But it's the children who represent the future - including our future - seen from a global perspective. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says: "Refugees have been deprived of their homes, but they must not be deprived of their futures."

The decisions we make today will determine their and our lives tomorrow - that is why we must not ignore them, leaving no one behind.

This brings us to the crucial question of the role of education for refugee children.
Education is a wide ranging term. It does not only encompass intellectual aspects as learning at school, studying at a university or training for a professional career with its purpose to prepare for life, supporting integration in a community including to learn participating in social, political, economic and cultural areas.

An essential aspect of education is the character and personality development.
Pointing out the importance of this internal dimension of education, one school headmaster, a holocaust survivor gave the following address to his teachers:

"I am the survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes have seen what nobody ever should witness:
gas chambers built by educated engineers,
children poisoned by medical doctors
babies killed by trained nurses,
women and children shot dead and burnt by college and university graduates.
That's why I mistrust education. My fervent plea is:
Help your students to become human. Your efforts never may produce trained monsters, educated psychopaths, capable Eichmanns.
Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only when they serve to make our children more humane."

Thinking of educating refugee children their emotional state needs special consideration.
It takes time for them to digest their horrible experience when they had to flee from their homes. Normally children are curious and willing to learn but these minors have to settle first before they are ready at all to take in new contents.

Unfortunately, youth deeply wounded by violence will turn violent more likely. This is particularly true for boys who are even more vulnerable in this regard. They would need programs to release the energy of rage and hatred in a way that nobody would be harmed. Otherwise they are at high risk to fall into the hands of deceivers who want to use them for their own perfidious purposes. They might be seduced to commit terror attacks, kill innocent people thus generating a cycle of violence.

For this reason, already existing sports projects that are very useful to teach discipline, reliability, respect, fairness, trust etc. become increasingly important.

The training in non-violent conflict solutions must be on the agenda everywhere to educate children towards lasting peace.

In many cultures the education of girls is not seen as important as the education of boys. But apart from teaching the intellect, the learning of self-defense allows female children dignity, self - esteem, independence and self-sufficiency. This could even help them to be spared from various sorts of exploitation and abuse.

There are four major issues we are dealing with on a world-wide level:

  1. Materialism
  2. Conflicts between religions
  3. The decline of family values
  4. Corruption

Also refugee children and youth are confronted with these topics in their education:

Materialism denies the existence of any higher being than a human. It regards a person to be nothing more than a high developed animal. For example, religious values are seen as a restriction to the development of a person, a threat to the free will, the suppression of desires and enforced obedience, submission to a rigid hierarchy and a patriarch family system. But a materialistic and purely humanistic world view on the other hand offers little orientation or purpose in life.

Religions shape civilization through promoting moral values and transmitting them from one generation to the next, providing social stability. Even though the essence of the different religions is the same, unfortunately focused on their own doctrines religions can also be the cause of terrible wars.

Instead of working together to create and foster world peace the disunity of religious people does not respect or tolerate different views. This inevitably leads to unbridgeable disputes even up to violent contentions.

Inter-religious dialogue can help for a better understanding of each other's beliefs, overcoming prejudice and enable a fair, respectful treatment of people with different cultural backgrounds.

Religions have a big responsibility to prevent a radicalization of young people. They can encourage their followers to become persons of integrity pursuing virtues as truthfulness, love for others, modesty, dignity etc.

Family breakdown: the liberation of moral norms here in the west is a provocation of religious fundamentalists and willingly serves as a justification for the use of violence against individuals, the society and state. Refugee children and youth find themselves between completely contrary concepts of LGBTI promoted lifestyles and their own family traditions that may include forced marriages, for example. After all it's the family that gives children the security they so urgently need.

As an example I would like to mention a study from 2009 by the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on the Psycho-social Effects of War on Children and Families Who Are Refugees from Armed Conflict Residing in the United States. It says:

"Despite the multiple stressors on refugee families, research and clinical evidence indicate remarkable resilience in these families as they cope with the aftermath of war. Well-functioning families provide a protective function in the lives of their children. While poor parental functioning is linked to greater difficulties in refugee children. Refugee parents model resilience to their children in many ways, including adapting to a new culture, providing for their families, and sending additional economic support to family members still living in their country of origin." - End of the exert.

Corruption is a world-wide problem that starts in the individual, expands to the family, society, nation and ends on the global level.

Children learn by example. Infants will automatically do what they see their parents do. They are impacted by their social environment. Especially refugee children due to the experience of violence are severely affected. They need a safe environment with caring and responsible, trustworthy adults they relate to.

On a permanent basis corruption can only be defeated by a constant education based on universal values that are recognized by all people as good and desired.

The criteria of corruption are excessive self-interest, irresponsibility, unsocial behaviour among others. On the other hand, living for a higher purpose leads a person to integrity and to a common well-being.

The empowerment of refugee children can prevent them from the feeling of being "losers" and the least and weakest in our society. They too, as much as any other children have a human dignity and a right to develop their potential -  thereby contributing to a peaceful society.

However, support for refugee education is not at all granted. Ladies and Gentlemen - as you know - a large number of people is associating strangers coming to our continent with the danger of radical extremism. But this threat is present everywhere in the world - including our place as well. That fear is a real challenge for our societies and we have to think how we can cope with all the different positions from a "welcome culture" to a culture of nationalism with closely guarded borders to guarantee safety for the citizens.

As a consequence, the solution will lie in a balance of mutual security and the openness to learn from each other.

Minors coming here can also be regarded as -  albeit unofficial - ambassadors of their home countries.

Whatever is invested in their education can be an appropriate developing aid for their respective nations to lead those to lasting peace and prosperity when the children return home as adults and use what they have learnt abroad to reconstruct their country.

Social and economic justice will foster stability when developing countries become equal partners to highly developed industrial nations.

Displaced minors remaining in Europe or other places need a chance to integrate well. In order for this to happen the first and foremost necessity is to learn the foreign language.
The exchange of different cultures offers an opportunity to broaden the minds and to enrich in knowledge.

Concluding, I would like to sum up my presentation as follows:

The education of refugee children and youth encompasses the response to their increased need for psychological care. Learning the language and becoming familiar with the culture of the host country enables them to integrate. Religion can give orientation and stability to a person. But an inter-religious dialogue is important for a better understanding of each other's beliefs and traditions. Different views on moral issues are a challenge for refugee families that affects the children as well.

An education that leads to the development of a mature person of integrity will also contribute to a better society.

Each and every one of us is asked to do anything for the realization of sustainable peace in the family, society and finally the world.

Thank you very much for your attention.