After war, Ebola, school funding is critical need, priest says

by Dave Gavlak

ISTANBUL (CNS) — The children of Sierra Leone, victims of a bloody 10-year civil war and more lately of Ebola, need help returning to school, Father Peter Konteh told sponsors of a new U.N. educational initiative.

“First, there were the children who didn’t have the opportunity to go to school because of the civil war. And then the children of these war orphans missed school because of Ebola,” said the priest, executive director of Caritas Freetown.

During the U.N.-sponsored World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul May 23-24, the priest spoke of the children’s needs and of his personal experience helping combat the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa.

Caritas was one of the first humanitarian organizations to respond to Ebola by educating people about the virus and how it should be handled at the local and international levels.

“I was called by the U.S. Senate and the British House of Commons to educate about Ebola, especially about the practical human suffering that was involved: the people who lost jobs, no schooling,” he said.

“We had just recovered from the war and then Ebola struck us,” Father Peter, as he prefers to be known, told Catholic News Service. Sierra Leone’s civil war from 1991 to 2002 is considered one of the most brutal in post-independence Africa and was funded in large part by blood diamonds.

“When Ebola hit, children were not able to go to school for about one-and-a-half years because of the emergency public health situation. Schools were closed, of course, because of fear of transmission. That has brought a lot of problems as to which academic year the children belong. Some of the children began to return to school six months ago,” Father Peter said.

The Education Cannot Wait Initiative launched at the World Humanitarian Summit aims to raise nearly $4 million to reach, within the next five years, 13.6 million children in need of education. Ultimately, it hopes to reach 75 million children by 2030.

Until now, education has taken the back seat to other critical humanitarian assistance, receiving only 2 percent of the funding given by international donors.

With a quarter of the world’s school-aged children — some 462 million — living in countries affected by humanitarian crises, “education can no longer wait,” said former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the U.N. special envoy for global education.

Humanitarian appeals for education in Africa in past years have been grossly underfunded, he said.

“This is a human tragedy because we are talking about millions of children in a continent which has its high share of refugees and those affected by emergencies,” Brown told a special panel on strengthening the humanitarian response in Africa.

“If we do not act, we are denying a whole generation the chance to realize the potential to bridge the gap. This is urgent. It’s about human lives being wasted, a lost generation that need our help now,” he said.

Addressing the same special panel, Somalian President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, an educator, said years of civil war and unrest had decimated the East African country’s educational system.

Somalia now has 150,000 public schools and its first university, but challenges remain for internally displaced children living where there is no school for them to attend. Also, youths who missed out on education due to conflict must somehow be brought into the mainstream and receive remedial education rather than allowing them to turn to using guns or become pirates.

“Most of al-Shabab youth are not there for ideological reasons but for the $50 at the end of the month,” Mohamud said, speaking about members of Somalia-based terrorist group.

While the 5,000 schools in Syria that are no longer in use because they either have been destroyed, damaged or shelter displaced families made the headlines, other educational emergencies have received less attention, despite their critical nature.

In northeast Nigeria and Cameroon, for example, more than 1,800 schools have been shut down due to crises related to the Boko Haram militant group, and in conflict-hit Central African Republic, a quarter of the schools no longer function, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF reports.

Still, Father Peter expressed hope that the educational initiative will provide some funds to his native Sierra Leone.

“We need it most. We have had so many disasters, like Ebola, the war, and our country is one of the lowest on the human development index. Illiteracy rates are high, especially among girls. We need the support desperately,” the priest said.

Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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