10/10/2013 13:27 BST | Updated 10/12/2013 05:12 GMT

The Lost Schoolgirls of Syria


"She's so smart," Warfa says of her daughter, Cibar, nine, as she tries to help her to remember the English alphabet. Cibar can only get to 'C'.

"She's so smart," her mother says again, "but she's been out of school for two years. She's forgotten."

Cibar, a bright, beautiful girl, is deaf. Even when times are good she needs specialised help. For just over a month she's been living in Kawergosk refugee camp in northern Iraq, one of the more than 61,000 mostly Kurdish Syrian refugees that have arrived since the middle of August - bringing the total registered in Iraq to almost 195,000.

Before that, the conflict kept her away from school.

Her story is tragically common.

"I want to become president of Iraq," Adla, 15, says. She also lives in Kawergosk. She hasn't been in a classroom in two years either.

Adla's oldest brother was killed in the fighting. The family crossed the border with nothing. When I first spoke to her, neither she nor her sisters had changed their clothes in a month.

Why, with all that's happened, does school matter so much?

Adla starts crying. "Because I want to help my mother and father," she says, quickly wiping the tears from her eyes.

But there's no way for Adla to do that. There's no secondary school in Kawergosk.

And there is certainly no special needs teaching for Cibar.

Today the UN International Day of the Girl is focusing on girls across the globe who are out of education. It's thought around 17 million girls will never enroll in school - and millions more are unable to complete their education due to factors such as cultural barriers, sexual harassment and, like Adla and Cibar, the consequences of humanitarian emergencies.

Unicef, the world's leading children's organisation, is working with UNHCR and UNESCO to gauge how big the education gap is for Syrians in Iraq, and the numbers are not good. In the Erbil region, where about half the refugees are, 90 per cent of children aged 6-17 are not enrolled in school.

A separate report, which charts the needs of those from 16-20, says that a staggering 95 per cent are not in school.

Unicef has warned of a 'lost generation' if we don't do everything possible to help the children of Syria.

A lost generation starts when girls are put at greater risk of child labour, early marriage, and violence. Because school doesn't just educate girls, it also protects them.

But what about long term? What will we miss if Cibar and Adla don't enjoy the right that most of us take for granted- to pursue our ambitions, or at least to have the chance to try? At what cost, to them and to us, will their potential be squandered?

It is corrosive to have nothing to do- and there really is nothing to do in a refugee camp.

Cibar hangs out with the girls next door. They can't sign and she can't speak.

Adla's main pastime is collecting water.

At the age at which you are entitled to think you can achieve anything; to be confronted with the alternative, and in such a stark manner, is cruel and unjust.