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I Visited A Syrian Refugee Camp, And Here’s What Business Leaders Should Know

Mar 20, 2017

The debate around refugee relocation and treatment has rarely been in the media spotlight as much as it is right now. Across the globe, governments are weighing how to handle the flood of people coming from Syria – and other conflict zones – but few viable or just solutions have been agreed upon. In the meantime, the refugee crisis continues to grow, with the burden largely placed on Syria’s neighbors.

While government leaders work towards a political solution, business leaders have a valuable role to play not only through charitable activities, but through real investments.

Last September, I visited the Za’atari refugee camp in the north of Jordan with Save the Children, where 80,000 Syrians live, work and learn. Listening to young people, their parents and teachers talk about their experiences at the camp made a huge impression on me.

Right now, Za’atari is a basic, but relatively safe space where people can live and children can learn, just 18 miles from the Syrian border and the conflict that continues to rage. But we must not think for one minute that refugee camps are a permanent solution. Only one third of the 30,000 children in Za’atari are actually in school. Many have family support networks, but others have lost their relatives in the war.

The Syrians I met were focused on gaining the knowledge and skills to help them find a future job. Many also wanted to build their own businesses and drive the growth of their country once the fighting has ended. It’s in everyone’s interests for business to invest in these people as much as they’re investing in themselves.

In Jordan’s capital, Amman, I visited two Children and Family Centers that Pearson is funding with Save the Children to increase access to quality education for Syrian refugees and local children.

For many Syrian children, full-time education is a luxury. Forty percent of refugee children are not receiving any form of education and for those with some access, schooling is often patchy and insufficient. The pressure on refugee families to earn money can force young people into child labor and early marriage, taking them out of school and making them less likely ever to return. These children are at risk of becoming a “lost generation” and they cannot be ignored.

All of this is happening at a time when 40% of employers worldwide can’t fill vacancies because they lack properly trained workers. As leaders, we have a moral and a business responsibility to move young people into that workforce pipeline, regardless of their background. Companies opening these opportunities are seeing benefits for their business and those striving for a better life. Microsoft and Pearson are working with Syrian refugee students in Jordan and Lebanon to administer MS Office exams so students can gain practical skills. Chobani has a program to hire refugees resettled in the US and LinkedIn is leveraging its platform in Sweden in a pilot program to match refugees with jobs there. These partnerships are important because they provide sustained support after the initial humanitarian emergency. But none of them can be successful until we address the need to educate Syria’s young people.

There will come a time when the brutal conflict in Syria will end-but the debilitating effects of a missed education will stay with a child for the rest of his or her life. Investment into Syria itself may be nearly impossible while the civil war continues but the education of millions of innocent Syrians does not need to stop. Whether in camps like Za’atari or in the countries where they have found refuge, we have the choice to invest now or lose an entire generation.

The world’s largest companies have a responsibility. Businesses have the reach, expertise and resources to make a real difference for people affected by conflict.

Working together, we can ensure that the horrors of this conflict do not leave a permanent scar on this generation of Syrians.

John Fallon is the CEO of Pearson.

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