Ansumana sat listening intently to her teacher before playing happily with her friends when I met her earlier this year. Just three years old, she and her older brother Bandu are students at the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) early childhood class serving urban refugees in Kampala, Uganda. Their father, whom I spoke briefly with, told me they fled the Central African Republic after his wife, their mother, was killed due to ongoing violence in his home country.
While Ansumana and her brother learn the alphabet, play with their friends, and are nurtured by their teacher, their father is busy taking language and livelihoods classes nearby, so that he can better support his family. As refugees, it is challenging to find the means to survive and thrive in a foreign land.
Children of Emergencies
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are more than 70 million refugees and other forcibly displaced persons around the world, half of whom are children. Many of these children, and their families, have had to flee their homes under the most difficult of circumstances, enduring trauma, instability, and insecurity.
Ensuring that these children have access to early educational opportunities, is of the utmost importance. Yet, for the youngest of children, access to a learning environment is even more difficult during times of conflict and crisis. In countries affected by emergencies, only 1 in 3 children is enrolled in pre-primary education.
Early Stimulation Matters
The early years – from birth to five years – are the most important in a child’s development: over 90 percent of brain development takes place during this period of a person’s life. Adequate nutrition, good health care, a nurturing environment, meaningful and caring interactions, and play all contribute to early learning. Psychosocial stimulation at home, in the community, and in other environments where children spend their time constitute early learning experiences and are fundamental for a child’s full development.
In this sense, pre-primary education is important because it stimulates cognitive and emotional development, has a positive impact on school completion and learning outcomes in later childhood, and provides lifelong benefits in terms of health and financial earnings.
Preparing children for primary school is therefore a critical goal of early childhood education programs. In some refugee contexts, pre-primary education is only available at a cost, and thus, out of reach for refugee families.
Advancing Early Education
In a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, JRS is providing early childhood education for Syrian refugees at the Frans van der Lugt Centre, to prepare them for entry into the Lebanese public-school system. Open since 2014, the Centre runs eight Kindergarten classes with both morning and afternoon shifts and provides breakfast and snacks. Some of the children suffer from trauma and stress due to the trials they and their families have been through and continue to endure. The Centre is a safe haven for them and provides peace of mind to their families.
While the need is great, unfortunately, there has historically been a lack of attention – and resources – dedicated to pre-primary education. Aid to pre-primary education accounts for just 0.5 percent of global foreign aid spending in 2017. The allocation of overall education aid to pre-primary schooling is similar for conflict-affected countries, also amounting to only around 0.5 percent.
Leaving No Child Behind
This is starting to change with new initiatives like Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the first global fund dedicated to education in emergencies. Since its inception in 2016, ECW has invested in 32 countries, reaching more than 1.5 million children and youth – half of them girls. ECW’s goal is to ensure that no child’s right to education is disrupted by conflict or disaster as it makes catalytic investments that support quality education in some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. To date, 66 percent of ECW-supported countries provide pre-primary education, reaching over 78,000 children.
We must keep access to early childhood education opportunities and environments at the forefront of our humanitarian efforts to continue this important progress. There are many more children like Ansumana and Bandu waiting and hoping for their opportunity to thrive.
Do you know of other initiatives to foster early education in conflict contexts? Share your experience in the comments section or mention @BIDgente on Twitter.