Walid Touma, Lebanese education expert, sounds alarm about unattended children
BEIRUT - A generation of unattended children is growing up deprived of basic education and in danger of becoming radicalised and recruited as fighters in future wars, believes a senior Lebanese education expert.
Considering that more than 15 million children in the Arab region, including 3 million Syrians and Iraqis, are out of school, Walid Touma, a professor engaged in education programmes at Beirut’s Lebanese American University (LAU) describes the figure as “shocking”.
“This situation calls for immediate action because these children constitute a most fertile recruitment ground for the Islamic State (ISIS) and similar organisations, which preach terrorism,” Touma told The Arab Weekly.
“These are the future weapons of war. They will be immediately tapped by militant groups and become the agents of terror because they have no other alternative and no chance to have a taste of education.”
The effects of wars in the region have been tremendously disruptive, especially in Syria and Iraq. People younger than 18 comprise more than 50% of the refugees and those displaced by the Syrian war.
As violence expands in the protracted wars, whether in Syria, Libya and Iraq schools are destroyed and more children are at risk of missing out on education and the necessary knowledge for them to grow into successful adults, Touma observed.
Unless Arab governments and the international community move quickly to reverse or at least remedy the situation, “our children and grandchildren will be still suffering from war”, he said. “If we reckon that out of the 3 million children in Syria and Iraq alone, some 200,000, or 100,000, or even less, become pure warriors in the terror game, you’re talking about wars that could go on for 20, 30 and even 50 years.”
The university professor also cautioned that the world would bear the brunt of a lost generation of violence-driven children without any formal education if the matter is not properly and quickly addressed.
“No place will be immune. The whole world would suffer, not only the countries where they came from. These children could become future mercenaries or weapons to be used anywhere,” he said, noting that militants fighting in Syria and Iraq belong to 30 different nationalities. “These were obviously uncared-for children who have become rogue and brainwashed … That’s the risk that the world needs to be aware of.”
“This matter should be a core issue, not only for the countries concerned but for the United Nations, the European Union as well as the Arab League,” Touma said.
Himself a “child of war”, Touma was only 10 years old when Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil strife broke out in 1975. But he appeared confident that “it is not too late” to reverse the tide.
“The situation could still be remediable, especially for young children in the primary and pre-primary phase. But once the child hits teenage it becomes much more difficult, because by then he could be brainwashed and drawn into taking whatever choice he has to exit from his misery,” Touma argued. “However, we need to act now and sufficient funding should be made available for that. It is an utmost priority.”
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) said in a joint study that one in four children in the region is either out of school or at risk of dropping out as a result of direct conflict, poverty and turmoil. It said, in addition to 15 million Arab children currently out of school, an additional 6 million are believed to be at high risk of dropping out.
Low levels of funding was pinpointed as the most critical educational bottleneck for reaching conflict-affected children in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria, Yemen, the Palestinian territories and Sudan, according to the UN report. It said funding shortfalls, due in part to unfulfilled promises from donor governments, prevented the United Nations from extending educational support to some 2.2 million children.
Touma underscored the need to prioritise investment in education to ensure that all unprivileged and war-affected children are able to get an education, “in order to prevent a situation where they have to go begging in the street, and get easily tapped and brainwashed”.
The flow of refugees and destruction of schools will not come to a halt until the region’s wars do but, in the meantime, education cannot be placed on standby, he argued.
Touma said technology should make it easier to spread awareness and create an environment of education, even inside refugee camps. “They should see something else [other] than no food, misery and violence,” he said. “We need to shift their minds from these calamities and tell them there is something better.”
Referring to Lebanon’s civil war, Touma said experience showed that even in very challenging environments, flexible and innovative measures can keep education going. “Education was like the oil for Lebanon … It brought prosperity after the war and thus protected the country. When you have that, you would definitely say no more war.”
“Only education paid back, not war … So by saying yes to education for war-affected children, we’re saying no to future wars.”