Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is calling on the international community – including Canada – to spend more on the education of Syrian refugee children to avoid the increasing risk of a "lost generation" growing up without schooling.
Ms.Yousafzai, who last summer spent her 18th birthday opening a school in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley that was funded by her not-for-profit Malala Fund, told The Globe and Mail that while she admires Canada – and specifically Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – for its efforts to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees, more needs to be done to help the 700,000 Syrian refugee children who are currently out of school in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
The co-winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize called for governments and other donors to create a $1.4-billion (U.S.) fund to ease the education crisis. Canada, which Ms. Yousafzai said bears a special responsibility because of its involvement in bombing Islamic State-occupied parts of Syria, should contribute $33-million to the goal.
"All the rich countries need to contribute, including Canada. Canada has been welcoming to refugees, especially Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But all countries must also do more to support education in the Syria border states, who are bearing a great burden hosting many millions of refugees," Ms. Yousafzai said in an interview ahead of a Thursday speech she will give to a major international conference in London aimed at mobilizing more aid for Syrians.
"It's not just military action [that's needed], it's also investing in peace and the future. If you want to rebuild the country, you need to educate the children. How can you see progress, how can you think of any future for a country that has 700,000 children out of school?"
A spokesman for Global Affairs Canada said the government would respond Monday to Ms. Yousafzai's request for funding. International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau will represent Canada at the Supporting Syria conference.
Ms. Yousafzai was speaking by telephone from Birmingham, England, where she's attending the prestigious Edgbaston High School while continuing her activism. As someone who was once forced from her family's home by war and who had to fight for her own education – she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012 after she rose to prominence by calling for girls to have equal access to education in the tribal areas of Pakistan – she said she had been deeply moved by the plight of young Syrians during her visits to the refugee camps of Jordan and Lebanon.
"It's very personal for me," she said, recalling how she met many school-aged children who were not in classes while visiting the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan last year.
There is a severe lack of school spaces in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which collectively host some four million Syrian refugees. As support for the Syrian refugee crisis has fallen short – the international community funded just 40 per cent of an $8.4-billion appeal by United Nations agencies last year, leading to cuts in food rations – young Syrian boys have been forced to leave school in order to take menial jobs and help their families make ends meet. Syrian girls, meanwhile, are being married off at younger and younger ages as their families seek to "protect" their daughters, while at the same time reducing the number of mouths they have to feed.
"We need to educate these children now. Otherwise it will be a lost generation," Ms. Yousafzai said. "This generation is not lost yet. They need our help."
One of the Syrian girls Ms. Yousafzai met in Zaatari was Muzoon Almellehan. The 17-year-old Ms. Almellehan – whose family fled Daraa, in southern Syria, shortly after the civil war began – will also speak Thursday, addressing an audience expected to include British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Like Ms. Yousafzai, Ms. Almellehan is lucky enough to have a father who was a teacher, and one who believes in girls' right to education. Many others weren't so fortunate.
"Many young people have lost hope in their lives. They say it's not important if they are educated or not," Ms. Almellehan said in an interview. "But without education, how can I help my [own] daughters and sons?"
The Supporting Syria conference will open alongside a seemingly stalled peace effort that began Friday in Geneva. Representatives of President Bashar al-Assad's regime and various opposition groups have yet to meet face-to-face in the Swiss city, each blaming the other for the lack of progress toward a negotiated settlement.
Sunday was another bloody day in Syria, underlined by a double suicide-bombing at the Sayeda Zeinab shrine, a Shia holy site near Damascus, that killed at least 50 people. The attack was claimed by the extremist organization known as Islamic State.
Ms. Yousafzai also mourned the changing mood in Europe toward those fleeing wars in Syria and elsewhere. Recent days have seen countries such as Sweden and Finland announce they may deport tens of thousands of those who arrived in their countries in 2015, while Denmark has introduced measures allowing border guards to seize the belongings of new arrivals.
"If you look at Europe and other countries, they're not allowing refugees into their countries, but they're also not providing funding to the host countries like Lebanon and Jordan," she said.