Ammar chuckles as he recounts the almost cliché story of how he became an actor when his father wanted him to become a doctor. “I studied science that year. And then one day the head of the school was driving and stopped right by our house. He rolled down the window and shouted to my dad, ‘either you take your son to a different school or he changes subjects.’”
Luckily for Ammar, his father respected his son’s desire (and his teacher’s recommendation) to study the arts, and he switched to literature, philosophy and drama. Ammar went on to win poetry prizes and study at the Higher Institute of Arts in Damascus. In December 2011, while he was on tour in London as a professional actor, war broke out in Syria and he realized he couldn’t go back.
His education has stood him in good stead, though he stresses that there were major flaws with the system under al-Assad. It has also clearly benefited his brothers and sisters too. All are engineers, lawyers or teachers – now spread across Turkey and Europe since the conflict began. One brother managed to move his family to London a few years ago. His teenage daughters win prizes at their school in Wanstead and want to become teachers and architects. Ammar swipes through the youngest’s Instagram and shows me her drawings, and they really are quite exceptional.
It would seem crass to call Ammar and his nieces the “lucky ones”, after all they’ve been through and all they’ve lost. But they are, at least, in the best possible position to make a new start in a different country. Two million Syrian children are now scattered across the globe and in desperate need of the same opportunity.
Educating refugees was high on the agenda at Davos last week, with mention of the risk of a “lost generation” in Syria. Less than 2 percent of aid budgets are spent on education, the priority being food, shelter and healthcare during humanitarian crises. As the conflict in Syria continues, however, education becomes a growing priority. Aside from missing out on the skills they’ll need in later life, refugee children out of school are at a high risk of becoming radicalized, forced into labor and trafficked. What’s more, the longer children are out of school, the harder it is for them to return.
Speaking at Davos, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged world leaders to commit to plans to create more places in schools in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey for refugees, plans that would require some $750 million. “If we do nothing,” he said, “thousands could go through their school-age years without ever being in the classroom”. The idea is to further develop the “double-shift” system, whereby refugee children fill the empty school buildings after scheduled classes have finished for the day. In Lebanon this has had some success: the government claim to have moved 207,000 children off the streets and into the classroom.
It is in Europe’s best interest to invest in the futures of the 2 million children that have had to flee their home country. Eventually, Syria will need them to come back and be the doctors, architects, teachers, engineers – and actors and artists – that the country needs in order to thrive. Save the Children released a report that predicted that 5.4 percent of Syria’s future GDP could be lost if it’s children stay out of school. The conclusion is clear – investing in their education now will be one less problem that tomorrow’s Syria will have to face.