02/10/2013 13:10 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

The Education Emergency Facing Syria's Children

Thirteen-year-old Zahra has fled bombing, killings and chaos in Syria - but she says the worst thing has been losing her education. Like almost one in five schools in Syria, her school in Aleppo was destroyed, forcing her out of class for more than six months. As the situation deteriorated, her family made the heartbreaking decision to abandon their home and flee to Lebanon. Now, struggling with everyday life as a refugee in the Bekaa valley, Zahra is looking to the future, devastated that her dream of becoming a doctor is in jeopardy.

When we think of a humanitarian emergency, we don't necessarily think first of education. We think of immediate, life-saving needs, like clean water, health care and shelter. Of course, in Syria and across the region, these supplies and services are absolutely vital for children and families living with the daily consequences of conflict and displacement. However, learning is just as urgent. Almost two million Syrian children have been forced to drop out of school over the past year. And, as more than one million children have now fled Syria's borders, the needs in neighbouring countries are also acute. Education is the least-funded area of Unicef's emergency response and its importance is not resonating enough with donors. For this reason, the global education campaigner, Malala Yousafzai, travelled to the UN General Assembly in New York to call for urgent action to help Syrian children get back to learning. But perhaps we still haven't explained well enough why this is such a high priority for Unicef and our partners.

In the short-term, education during an emergency is vital for children. Going to class instils a much-needed sense of routine and normality amidst the chaos of conflict or life as a refugee. For refugee children, being in school offers a safe space to remember that they are children, to feel hope for the future, to play and to begin the process of healing the emotional damage of all they have experienced. It also gives parents, struggling to cope at an incredibly stressful time, the opportunity to deal with other aspects of their lives in the knowledge that their children are safe and cared for. Even for those still in the firing line in Syria, it is important for children, and their parents, to feel that they will not lose entirely the opportunity of a better future amid such a painful present. Every moment of learning is even more precious when it is under threat.

In the long-term, missing out on education for sustained periods could have untold consequences for individual children, and for the future society they will rebuild. Unicef workers have heard of Syrian refugee children who have been out of class for more than two years and have forgotten how to read. The danger is that a generation will lose their one chance at childhood, their chance to learn, their hopes for the future. Education also shapes the kind of society we want our children to grow up in. Article 29 - my favourite section of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which underscores all of Unicef's work - emphasises the relationship between learning, tolerance and peace, which is so vital when those concepts are in short supply. The text says the education of a child shall be directed to "the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship amongst all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups." This is a great vision for education anywhere at any time, but especially describes exactly the spirit that the children of Syria will need in the future, to overcome divisions that have been deepened through conflict. If children are not to grow up imbued with hatred and fear, and are instead going to be empowered to build a better future, education must be a high priority.

Unicef is doing everything it can to get Syrian children back to learning - within Syria and in refugee communities in neighbouring countries. Unicef and partners are running lessons in schools, community centres, camps and homes. Zahra has joined specialist catch-up classes run by a Unicef partner organisation - "Sawa" - to try to help her gain a place in a mainstream school in Lebanon and gain the education she needs to set her on the road to her dream of studying medicine. She should not lose that dream, as well as losing her home, her school and the life she has known.

But much more needs to be done to help more children. Unicef is dealing with an escalating education emergency, behind the immediate humanitarian horror of the Syria crisis. We need your support now to prevent a generation of Syrian children losing the chance to move towards a brighter future.

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