12/07/2013 08:32 BST | Updated 11/09/2013 06:12 BST

Education in Conflict-Torn Syria: We Are All Malala

Today is Malala Day. Her 16th birthday. Less than a year ago she became a victim of an attack on education, when she was shot and almost fatally wounded by armed men on her way back from school. Her bravery has shone a light on the scale of the educational crisis the world still faces, as well as the struggle for a future faced by children living in areas affected by conflict.

The situation in Syria typifies this struggle.

Schools & schoolchildren under attack in Syria

Schools and schoolchildren are part of the Syrian conflict, and have been since the start. As the conflict intensified, school - once a centre of learning - became a place to be feared. Parents across all areas of Syria withdrew their children, fearing that the school itself could become a target from one side or the other. They were right. Fast forward a few months and weapons were pointed at schools as a stark warning to parents.

Nine year old Fadi* describes the scene in his home town: "in our school they aimed weapons towards us, and when they hit the school it destroyed half the building...I saw it on fire."

As children abandoned schools, armed groups moved in, taking over the schools, recognising their sturdy structure and multiple levels as advantageous in a conflict increasingly being fought street-to-street and house-to-house. It's surprisingly not against international law to do this (as long as the school is non-functional), and it turns a civilian structure into a 'legitimate military target'. In practice this means schools - often located in civilian areas - become a prime target for shelling.

Darker purposes

Save the Children's own research has shown that those schools which survive bombardment are being used for even darker purposes. Fifteen year old Khalid* recounts: "some men came to our village... they took me to jail. Except it wasn't a jail - it was my old school. They made it into a torture centre and took me there to torture me, in the same place I used to go to learn. When I realised...I was so sad, I wanted to cry"

Khalid was tortured in his old school for ten days.

The only real path out of poverty and oppression

As part of Save the Children's emergency team, I've spent a great deal of time talking to Syrian children about their experiences, their fears and their hopes for the future. Without exception, every single child I've spoken to since the conflict began wants to go back to school as quickly as possible. Even Khalid. Around the world, children describe education as the only real path out of poverty and oppression. In Syria they tell me they want to rebuild their country.

Many children in Syria have now been out of school for over 2 and half years. We know from experience in other conflicts that once children are forced to drop out of school in emergencies or conflicts, they often do not return. Once out of education, children face a multitude of risks, including recruitment into armed groups, sexual violence and exploitation, abduction, torture and harmful child labour.

Never again

Education and knowledge unlocks the immeasurable human potential in these children. Fadi, Khalid, Wael, Razan, Farah, Ali... their names and faces will haunt me, as their experiences in Syria will haunt them. But education can help them understand how these things have happened in their country, and why.

Education and an educated population is crucial to rebuilding Syria, to realising stability and peace. It can show these children a different future, so they can grow up and say "never again".

Save the Children teams are working across the region to deliver these vitally needed education programmes. It's a dangerous undertaking in some situations, but we're managing by delivering learning in education spaces that are small to reduce the likelihood of direct targets. We are also trying to avoid children needing to walk through increasingly hazardous streets by keeping education and learning close to home.