Business must invest in Syria’s refugees

At the UN General Assembly this week, Syria and the plight of its refugee citizens have been top of the agenda. In the face of challenges that will be felt for years to come, what kind of future should the rest of the world aspire to help them achieve?

Three weeks ago, I visited the Za’atari refugee camp in the north of Jordan with Save the Children, where 80,000 Syrians live, work and learn. As ever, it was talking to the young people themselves — and their parents and teachers — that made the biggest impression.

Inside Za’atari I spent time at an activity centre, where teachers were helping children learn to read, and the walls were filled with paintings and drawings. Teenage boys wanted to talk about Manchester City’s prospects in the English Premier League this season. It all seemed a very normal school scene — until I remembered I was inside the second largest refugee camp in the world.

I met the mothers of younger children, refugees from a poorer, more rural part of Syria. They were all able to read — but the mood in the room became markedly less buoyant when we asked whether their children were learning to read, too. I also watched a group of girls, some as young as 12, dance to a wonderful mix of traditional Syrian folk and very modern Arab rap. However, the story they told was about the perils of marrying very young and how a college degree was the passport to a better life.

Despite the circumstances, what struck me most in Za’atari was the community’s efforts to maintain a sense of normality. I saw well-maintained streets, tailors and even a shop selling bridal dresses. The entrepreneurial spirit of the residents is thriving. They are not looking for handouts, they just want to make their own way in the world and provide for their families.

One young Za’atari resident showed me around the house of his extended family; three shipping containers connected by corrugated iron to make a basic but welcoming home. Families like his receive UN rations of bread and 20 dina (£21) a month. Their diet is mainly bread, rice, lentils and perhaps chicken once or twice a week.

Right now, Za’atari is a basic but relatively safe space where people can live and children can learn, just 18 miles from the Syrian border and the conflict that continues to rage. But we must not think for one minute that refugee camps are a permanent solution. Only one third of the 30,000 children in Za’atari are actually in school. Many have family support networks, but others have lost their relatives in the war.

The term ‘refugees’ conjures up a homogeneous mass of people — but the Syrians displaced by the conflict are just as diverse as the members of any nation. Each individual I met has their own skills, challenges and ambitions. 80% of Syrians in Jordan are not actually in camps, but living side by side with Jordanians.

In Jordan’s capital, Amman, I visited two Children and Family Centres that Pearson is funding with Save the Children, to increase access to quality education for Syrian refugees and local children. There I watched a group of bright, lively teenagers having a math lesson.

They want to be engineers, doctors, teachers, dancers, tech entrepreneurs — and they’re plenty smart enough to achieve their dreams. But it is going to be hard when that was the only math lesson most of them get each week. They spend far more of their time working to earn money — not much more than a dollar an hour — to support their families.

There will come a time when the brutal conflict will end — but the debilitating effects of a missed education will stay with a child for the rest of his or her life. Investment into Syria itself may be nearly impossible whilst the civil war continues but the education of millions of innocent Syrians does not need to stop. Whether in camps like Za’atari or in the countries where they have found refuge, we have the choice to invest now or lose an entire generation.

The world’s largest companies have a responsibility. Businesses have the reach, expertise and resources to make a real difference for people affected by conflict. This doesn’t just mean charity, it means real investment.

The Syrians I met wanted to gain the knowledge and skills so they would thrive in companies like Pearson. Many also wanted to build their own businesses and drive the growth of their country once the fighting has ended. It’s in everyone’s interests for business to invest in these people as much as they’re investing in themselves.

Right now the world’s leaders are meeting at the UN and discussing the plight of young Syrians. I have been sharing the stories of the people I met with other business-leaders to see how, with partners like Save the Children and others, we can do more to provide support and investment.

Working together, we can ensure that the horrors of this conflict do not leave a permanent scar on this generation of Syrians.

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An original version of this article was published on 22.09.16 in City A.M. It can be viewed here.

You can learn more about Pearson and Save the Children’s ‘Every Child Learning’ partnership here.

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