Angelina Jolie is the Special Envoy for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. She focuses on major crises that result in mass population displacements, undertaking advocacy and representing UNHCR and the High Commissioner at the diplomatic level. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
(CNN)Refugee families endure innumerable forms of mental and physical anguish, including the pain of being unable to provide their children with food when they are hungry or medicine when they are ill or injured. But I have also seen how much it weighs on refugee parents when they are unable to send their children to school, knowing that with each passing year, their life prospects are shrinking and their vulnerability is growing.
In a new report, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, warns that rising numbers of refugee children are not receiving an education. While the implications are grave, our response should not be to despair but instead to see an opportunity.
The global refugee crisis is a major challenge for our generation. But the task is not hopeless. Refugees themselves are not passively waiting for help, but are actively searching for ways to be part of the recovery of their countries. Education is a key to helping them to do this.
The contrasting lives of two Syrian girls I have met brought this home to me vividly.
The first was a young girl who arrived in Lebanon with her five siblings when she was 11. Her mother had been killed in an airstrike, and the children were separated from their father. There was no parent to put food on the table, so she spent her days collecting garbage to sell for miniscule amounts of money and doing the back-breaking labor of fetching water and cooking and cleaning so her siblings could go to school.
She had to set aside her dream of becoming a doctor, and at 14, she married and become a mother. Today, she still cannot read or write. Even if the war ended tomorrow, she has been robbed of her childhood and the future she might have had.
The second Syrian girl I think of as I write this piece was 16 when she fled with her family to Iraq from Syria. Their life in the barren camp was extremely hard, but she was able to enroll in a local school. Iraq’s education authorities did not recognize her Syrian baccalaureate certificate, so she repeated her final year of high school.
She now studies dentistry at an Iraqi university, while still living with her family in a refugee camp. When I met her and her family there this summer, she told me that as soon as she could she would go back to her homeland and help with its recovery. “Syria needs its young people,” she said.
We often talk about refugees as a single mass of people, a burden. We do not see the intricate mosaic of individual men, women and children with their diverse backgrounds and immense human potential.
There are millions of young refugees with the energy and desire and commitment to study and work, who want to contribute to the societies that host them and ultimately help rebuild their home countries. There are millions of displaced parents who will make every sacrifice imaginable to help their children go to school.