By Paul Gadalla
Rai Insights Contributor
Many international experts worry about ISIS, while many local experts lament the chronic corruption in the region. But the real threat, which is gradually turning into a ticking time bomb, is the several million Arab children no longer in school due to regional conflicts. If both international and regional actors do not take note of this growing problem, extremist groups could mushroom within a generation’s time.
Education has always been on the poorer side in the Arab World. Although many Arab nationalist regimes championed universal education many national curriculums lacked innovation and lagged behind world standards. Students in the Arab World have long been taught government propaganda with little emphasis on innovation or pluralism. Good education came at a price, with families who could afford it sending their children to expensive missionary schools in hopes of a better education. Nevertheless they offered a modicum of education to the many poor Arab masses. Now though as Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq have become failed states, millions of Arab children are at risk of a life of illiteracy and being sucked into a cycle of poverty. They very well can become prey to groups such as ISIS. There is also the risk that those still in school are learning a curriculum under extremist groups who are preaching sectarian hatred and not skills that will help Arab youth.
The statistics are shocking. Half the world’s refugees are Arabs. In Lebanon alone, half the Syrian children refugees are not in school, which amounts to 180,000 school children. In Turkey the figure has risen to 400,000 Syrian children no longer in school. Within Syria, 2 million children are not in school and 1 out 4 schools have been destroyed. According to UNICEF 9,000 schools in the Middle East have been destroyed while another report estimates that 13 million Arab children have no access to education due to the violence in the region. With these numbers, coupled with the already poor education system in the Arab world what will become of the next generation of Arab youth?
We are now at risk that these children will be more prone than ever to groups like ISIS or become a lost generation with little hopes of employment. Many of these youth are now in hostile environments or refugees in countries hostile to them. They are also amongst their own sect, shattering the mosaic that made the Middle East a tolerant region. There is also the fear of what many Arab children are learning now under more extreme militias. By not aiding these children and closing our doors to them we are merely giving extremist groups more fodder.
There is also the economic impact as well. With so many children no longer in school and many professionals having left, the Arab World has been robbed of its economic workforce. Rebuilding the Arab world could take a generation and without a skilled workforce, economic malaise will continue.
International donors and Arab leaders must now begin to think in the long term. To be frank, many conflicts in the Arab world have no clear resolution or end in sight. Although yes, the short term is important as many families are actually starving, policies must be set up for what comes next. First and foremost Europe must end its xenophobia. By blocking the entrance of many migrants, they are now engraining a sense of otherness in Arab youth by making them feel unwanted, galvanizing them to cling more to extremist groups. Instead emergency measures should be taken to get as many refugee children in schools. By providing many refugee children education, they are giving children a sense of normalcy and a chance to be integrated into their new host society. It could prove useful in the long term as some of these children could return to their homelands and help in reconstruction efforts as well as bring new skills to their native countries. Also international donors must make a concerted effort to help rebuild schools in Arab countries as part of reconstruction efforts.
Arab countries must also think of education as a matter linked to security and the economy. Improvements to education in Arab countries could help curtail the propaganda of extremist elements and help create a more skilled Arab work force. Arab children must be taught that pluralism is something positive and to accept diversity in order to rebuild broken societies.
If both regional and international actors do not link the importance of education to the security or at least make a concerted effort to help Arab refugees accesss basic education, we could very well be losing an entire generation and see the Arab World backslide into a dark age.
*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon