From the battlegrounds of the Middle East come exemplary stories of courage and resolve that we must all listen to and learn from.
Batoul, a 14-year-old Palestinian refugee, has known conflict and war for much of her life. During her flight from Syria, her father and brother were killed.
When I met her in Ain el-Helweh camp in Lebanon, I was moved beyond words. Despite the trauma, she was the highest performing student in her school. In tragedy, she preserved dignity and drew energy from despair.
“Education is what gives me hope,” she says.
Batoul exemplifies how deeply Palestinians value learning and developing skills, often against all odds, and how they seek to rebuild after so much has been lost.
As the World Humanitarian Summit begins in Istanbul, there are many lessons that leaders and participants can draw from Batoul’s story.
None is more important than giving a new lease on life to political action aimed at resolving armed conflicts. Nothing will make a greater difference to Batoul and Palestinian refugees – not to mention millions of other civilians – than bringing about political solutions to end their plight.
Batoul’s experience also highlights the immense value of investing in humanity. The summit will emphasise the importance of leaving no one behind, and yet, it will take very hard work to ensure that all children truly realise their right to education, even in contexts of conflict and crises.
Our teachers become shelter managers during times of crisis and later return to being teachers.
As workers on the ground, we are all too aware of the enormity of the challenge. United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) provides education to 500,000 Palestinian girls and boys in 692 schools in Gaza, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
The story of Batoul is also the story of the specialists, teachers and school principals that stand on the frontline, delivering the education she values.
I have the deepest respect for their determination and dedication. They operate in some of the most challenging environments one can imagine, and we in UNRWA have lost too many colleagues in recent years: 16 in Syria since the conflict began, with 28 missing, and 11 in Gaza during the 2014 war.
At the Istanbul summit, UNRWA is unveiling a new report with deeply disturbing findings. Our study, titled Schools on the Frontline, which is due to be published, reveals that 44 percent of UNRWA’s 692 schools across the Middle East – that’s a staggering 302 – have been directly impacted by conflict and violence in the last five years.
In Syria, at least 70 percent of 118 UNRWA schools have, at some stage of the war, been rendered inoperative, either because they were impacted by violence or because we have used them as centres to house the displaced.
Our report is equally bleak about the impact of conflict on UNRWA schools in the occupied Palestinian territory.
Eight-three UNRWA school buildings were damaged during the 2014 Gaza conflict. Ninety UNRWA schools were used as designated emergency shelters for almost 300,000 displaced Palestinians, including at least 150,000 children.
Six of these school buildings were struck by artillery shells or other munitions, causing deaths and injuries. Weapons components were placed by armed groups in three other schools.
In the West Bank, UNRWA’s delivery of education services after nearly half a century of Israeli occupation has been facing increasing challenges in a context marked by Israeli security force operations, including the frequent use of tear gas, student delays at checkpoints, and school closures.
This has been exacerbated with the upsurge in violence since last October. I join Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in condemning attacks on all civilians.
As for Lebanon, periodic outbreaks of violence have forced 36 UNRWA schools to suspend classes for up to a week at a time on different occasions. More than 50 percent of all our schools in the country have been impacted at one time or another.
In Syria, we are still able to offer daily classes to some 45,000 students – many of whom achieve results above the national average.
Through our innovative Education in Emergencies programme, we deliver classes to more than 50,000 children in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, through UNRWA TV broadcasts and interactive distance learning modules.
In Gaza, the majority of our schools for quarter-of-a-million children reopened within weeks of the 2014 war ending.
And, as in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank, hundreds of specifically trained psycho-social counsellors work with deeply traumatised children to recover and move on with their lives.
At the summit, we will highlight UNRWA’s major investment in dignity, human development and a measure of stability for Palestinian refugees, who represent 40 percent of those in the world’s protracted refugee situations.
Development action and emergency aid are expected to be a big theme at the summit, and live side-by-side under one roof in UNRWA. Our teachers become shelter managers during times of crisis and later return to being teachers.
At the summit, we will join initiatives such as the “Grand Bargain” on humanitarian financing between donors and humanitarian organisations in a collective effort to work together more efficiently and effectively, and deepen the resource base for humanitarian action, including for Palestinian refugees.
Ban underlined that necessary means needed to be mobilised in order to preserve and improve our investment in education for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugee children.
It is their future and their humanity that is at stake and, as the UN secretary-general’s report reminds us, there is but “one humanity”.
Batoul has shown the courage to act. We must act equally decisively to help her and hundreds of thousands of UNRWA students realise the dreams they are working so hard to keep alive.
Pierre Krahenbuhl is the Commissioner-General of UNRWA.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.