Young Syrians at a Crossroads

Simon O'Connell, the executive director of Mercy Corps Europe, argues that Syria's young refugees have been largely overlooked despite a massive aid operation and that without empowerment and real alternatives, many are likely to fall prey to the violent extremism that feeds on a sense of injustice.

Written bySimon O'Connell Published on Mar. 14, 2016 Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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Syria’s war has lurched across a bloody threshold, now entering its sixth year. Its immense cost is stark. More than 250,000 people killed, more than 1 million injured. Some 80 percent of the population sunk in poverty and decades of development progress lost. Whole cities are reduced to wreckage. Indiscriminate violence: aerial bombardment; chemical attacks; starvation sieges; snipers; beheadings. A war without limits and without humanity.

Although much of today’s news is dominated by Europe’s political reaction to refugees, almost 90 percent of Syrian refugees are still living in the Middle East. Disconnected from the dreams they once held and the places they once called home, Syrian refugee youth have been largely overlooked despite a massive aid operation. Scarred by violence and loss, this generation risks alienation and hopelessness – prey to a violent extremism that feeds on a sense of injustice, grievance and isolation.

Yet this bleak reality also holds hope. Syrian refugee youth imagine a different future and yearn to return to Syria and rebuild. They can be engines for growth and prosperity in the countries of their exile – and a promise of reconciliation and reconstruction when Syria finally achieves peace. We firmly believe that young Syrians and their peers in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq can realize a better and more peaceful world. But they need our help.

We need to empower them, listen to them and give them a real voice in shaping decisions. Mercy Corps research shows that young people see injustice, exclusion and unfairness as decisive factors in whether or not they support groups like ISIS. We need to help youth see alternatives that give them a path to purpose and status without turning to violence. That means helping youth foster their ability to assert a loud voice for non-violent change. We need to accompany young people into the halls of power at local, national, regional and international levels – not just whisk them quickly on and off the stage at a few international events. And young Syrians need a way to pursue good life choices, get an education and secure decent, safe and fairly compensated jobs.

Syrian young people are under great stress at a critical time in their lives. Violence, discrimination, abuse, poverty and exploitation: any of these shocks could derail them. Syrians and local youth need help to understand their stresses, work through problems in a non-violent way, set goals and make good decisions for the long term.

Five years of war have robbed countless young refugees of an education. We are piloting a fresh approach to reach the hundreds of thousands of Syrian and local youth who have dropped out of school and won’t be going back. Mercy Corps is testing and rolling out education models that can be replicated at scale so that they can get skills that are demanded by the labor market.

But even the best education or skills-training programmes won’t work if there are no jobs. We need to set up enterprise funds, which are public/private partnerships that invest in small and medium businesses. They’re driven by the demands of the labor market and they focus on what works, what sells and what can create jobs. They benefit local citizens as well as refugees. Matched with special ‘enterprise zones’ and market-led workforce development programmes, they are a tested and powerful way to drive economic growth and social inclusion in each country hosting Syrian refugees.

Just over a month ago in London, I took part in the international pledging conference for Syria. That event secured pledges of over $10 billion – the most ever for a single crisis in a single day. If delivered, this massive pledge will help Syrians get by for another year or two. But most humanitarian aid is about surviving in the here and now. We need something different – something focused not only on today’s urgent needs but also on building resilience for tomorrow.

Business as usual will not deliver the change that’s needed. We need a new kind of partnership that can deliver demand-driven assistance over the long term, so vulnerable young people can make the right choices, build self-reliance, get a good education, secure jobs, start businesses and contribute to their communities.

The time is now. A generation stands on the threshold of adulthood. Each day that passes degrades our ability to help young Syrians and their peers in the region repair themselves before bitter experience hardens into habit. We can help young Syrians realize their promise as agents of change, peace and stability.

Top image: Syrian refugee children attend a class at a makeshift school set up in a tent at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan on Aug. 11, 2015. The U.N. agency for children says more than 80 percent of Syria’s children have been harmed by the five-year-old conflict, including growing numbers forced to work, join armed groups or marry young because of widening poverty. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)