`Education is the vaccine that prevents conflict'
When Chernor Bah was 11, school meant gathering with 150 other traumatised children under a tarpaulin in a refugee camp in Guinea. His teachers, like their students, were mentally scarred from the civil war they had escaped in their native Sierra Leone. But Mr Bah says the schooling he received was a vital first step on his road to recovery. Now, 17 years later, he campaigns on behalf of the millions of children who currently do not benefit from even the most basic schooling.
"My school was burned down, my house was burned down, members of my family suffered sexual violence," he told TES at this week's Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai. "Our lives were defined by fear. The teachers tried to give us a glimmer of hope. It was great to be able to wake up in the morning and say you were going to school. That was what kept you going."
Today it is estimated that at least half the 57 million children in the world who do not go to school are being denied education because they are living in the aftermath of conflict or disaster. The war raging in Syria has only added to the number.
"We see a huge problem there now," said Caroline Pontefract, director of education for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). "There are schools damaged, schools closed, schools with internally displaced people living inside."
The millions of families who have fled Syria are now placing huge pressure on the education systems in neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan - both countries that already had large numbers of refugees from Palestine. UNRWA was set up 65 years ago to help those Palestinian refugees and today educates half a million children in 700 schools. But despite these decades of experience, Dr Pontefract admitted she was disappointed with the way her staff reacted to the war in Syria.
"I remember saying we must do something [about their education] and I remember the pushback from colleagues who should know better saying `No, no, it's not life-saving, it doesn't really matter, we need to do food'," she said.
Svein Osttveit, an education director from the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), said that this kind of attitude was a long-standing problem.
"Traditionally since education is not an emergency issue like health, nutrition or shelter, there has been a tendency for it to come in a bit a later when there is a disaster," he said.
The Syrian conflict has shown that the difficulties can be huge even when provisions are in place. Children seeking refuge in Lebanon were having to compete for resources with Palestinian refugees who had been in the country for many years, said Salma El-Yassir, Lebanon country director for the Welfare Association, a UK charity working to help Palestine's displaced families.
Ms El-Yassir said she had spoken to refugee children who wanted to go back to Syria because they were being bullied. "They say: `The other kids make fun of us, they think we are idiots because we can't speak the language and are always cursing us,' " she said.
Mr Bah said that refugees should be allowed to go mainstream schools in the countries they flee to. "It is a human dignity thing," he said. "I feel that education should be guaranteed beyond borders and that even if you are a refugee you should have access to the formal schooling system.
"The commitment has to be not for discriminating, but for integrating. Because when you go to a school that doesn't look like a school it reinforces the notion that this conflict has taken something fundamental from you."
Mohammad Thneibat, the education minister of Jordan, said that refugee children were not segregated into separate schools in his country. "We were forced to establish double shift schools with separate morning and afternoon shifts," he said. "It has cost almost $600 million on an annual basis with only minor donations from international organisations."
But for Mr Bah every penny spent on schools has been worth it. "In an emergency, education is as important as health," he said. "It is the vaccine which prevents conflict but also prepares for the future."