Globally renowned footballer Mohamed Salah took the center stage alongside refugee youth at the first-ever virtual UN General Assembly (UNGA), calling for every child to access a quality education, including refugees.
Salah, an Ambassador for Vodafone Foundation and UNHCR’s Instant Network Schools (INS) programme, has teamed up with refugee students from INS schools in Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan, to address world leaders at the ‘SDG Action Zone’. His message at the UN General Assembly was clear: ‘We must make sure that all young people – including refugees – get an education. Now is the time to make sure refugee students don’t get left behind. And with COVID-19, connected education is extremely important.’
During the COVID-19 pandemic around 90% of the world’s school-age children have been affected by school closures, including an estimated 7 million refugees. Adapting to the limitations imposed by COVID-19 has been particularly tough for the 85% of the world’s refugees who live in developing or least developed countries. Mobile phones, tablets, laptops, connectivity, even radio sets are often not readily available to displaced communities. The UN Refugee Agency predicted earlier this month that unless immediate and bold action is taken by the international community to beat back the catastrophic effects of COVID-19 on refugee education, the potential of millions of young refugees living in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities will be further threatened.
Salah says: “Refugee children have been through so much but remain incredibly strong. They have many dreams and hopes, like all children. I heard from four students, Pacific, Luel, Salama and Fatna who represent millions of young people living in refugee camps across Africa. These four young people have inspired me and given me hope. They have shared their dreams for the future and told me what education means to them. Having access to technology and the internet transformed their classrooms and I want to make sure other children in refugee camps and communities have the same opportunities. Especially now as we face COVID-19, education is everything to refugee children and they should not be left out.”
Fatna, a 20-year-old refugee in an INS supported school in South Sudan, who sent a message to Salah for the event says: “I started school in 2008. We used to write on the ground. I remember the first day when I connected to the internet and I am learning new things every day from ICT. It has helped me to get very new information, which I did not know before. Education is the key to success and education is the key to the future. Education is the key to life – through education you can achieve many qualities and be a good person in the future.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, who introduced Salah at the UNGA SDG Action Zone session says: “Education is a lifeline for all children, and especially those who have been forced to flee violence and persecution. It provides them with hope, opportunity, and the tools to make the most of their potential. The COVID-19 pandemic is regrettably making receiving an education even more difficult, especially for refugee children who were already twice as likely to be out of school as non-refugee children. Our cooperation on the Instant Network Schools programme, championed by Mo Salah, expands the opportunity to equip refugee children with the skills and knowledge they need to live a better and more dignified life.”
UNHCR, governments and partners are working tirelessly to bridge critical gaps and ensure the continuity of refugee education during the current pandemic through connected learning, television and radio, and by supporting teachers and caregivers to engage with students while observing health guidelines.
But without greater support to education, the steady, hard-won increases in school, university, and technical and vocational education, enrolment for refugees could be reversed – in some cases permanently – potentially jeopardizing efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education for all.
The Instant Network Schools progamme was set up in 2013 as a partnership between Vodafone Foundation and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to provide quality education to refugee and host country students. The programme transforms an existing classroom into an online hub for learning, complete with internet connectivity, sustainable solar power and a robust teacher training programme.
There are 36 Instant Network Schools currently operating across eight refugee camps in Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. Vodafone Foundation and UNHCR are expanding the programme to benefit 500,000 learners and 10,000 teachers. By 2025, 255 new Instant Network Schools will be opened, including 20 schools planned this year in Mo Salah’s home country, Egypt, and in Mozambique.