“I will be a doctor. At least, that is what I would have been.”

Published: 2 February 2016 11:48 CET

By Dr Jemilah Mahmood, Under Secretary General for Partnerships, IFRC

“I will be a doctor. At least, that is what I would have been.” These words, spoken by a 15-year-old Syrian girl, made me stop reading and catch my breath in shock. When I was a young girl in Malaysia, I always knew that I wanted to be a doctor. I succeeded because I had the support of my large, loving family, and access to education. This young girl – Dalal – still has her loving family. But neither she nor her younger brother Tareq – who wants to be an electrical engineer when he grows up - have been able to attend school for the past three years.

In every conflict, disaster or health crisis, alongside the loss of life, destruction, and devastated livelihoods, are the crushed hopes and ambitions of countless young girls and boys whose schools and education systems no longer exist, and where there is nowhere safe or quiet for them to study.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) hears many stories like Dalal’s every day from crisis zones across the world. Some children are facing their third, fourth or even fifth year without access to education. Each case is heart-breaking. Even one child in this situation is too many.

The IFRC, the UN and other humanitarian organizations are trying to fill these gaps by providing temporary classrooms and school supplies, and trying to create a refuge from the chaos and fear of refugee camps and ruined cities, even if for just a few hours. We will all have to do more to address these issues as it is no longer enough just to save young lives. We must also help them to recover from their trauma and try to safeguard their futures.

As Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the IFRC, recently declared at the World Education Forum in London: “access to education is of the highest priority. But education goes beyond schoolbooks and classrooms, and is about far more than jobs and salaries. It is also about instilling the peaceful values that will guide children through their lives.”

To this end, more than half of our 190 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies provide humanitarian education programmes in and for their national education systems. Our education work also takes place outside formal classroom settings, for example with the IFRC’s Youth as Agents of Behavioural Change programme, in which young people train and empower one another to act as humanitarian role models within their communities, and to promote a culture of non-violence and peace.

I believe that the cross-cultural humanitarian values of peace, empathy, tolerance, diversity and compassion are needed today more than ever, and can counteract the anger and intolerance that so often dominates public discourse. Are these the values and ideas that can hold our fragmenting world together and safeguard our future? For the sake of today’s children, like Dalal, and those of tomorrow, we need to find out.