Pakistani education crusader Malala Yousafzai and other youth activists challenged world leaders on Monday to come up with $175 million to educate 400,000 Syrian children who fled to neighboring Lebanon to escape a civil war in their homeland.
As leaders gather in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, Yousafzai, 16, who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year for demanding education for girls, and U.N. education envoy Gordon Brown received $1 million from campaign group Avaaz to kick off the push for money to send Syrian refugees to school.
U.N. children's agency UNICEF said 257,000 Syrian children were seeking education in Lebanon in 2013 and that was set to rise to 400,000 next year, swamping the Lebanese public school system that already educates 300,000 children.
"I can feel what's happening in Syria because it's what happened to us in Pakistan," Yousafzai said of being displaced by violence as she spoke with Syrian student Farah Haddad, 20, in New York. Yousafzai is now at school in Britain because she cannot safely return to Pakistan.
Haddad, who finished high school in Syria and moved to the United States in 2011 to attend college, has taken up the fight for education for Syrian refugee children.
"When the war is ended, there will be no way for us to bring back the dead, or mend the hearts of mothers in Syria, but we can surely equip Syrian children to wrestle with a Syria when the bombs stop exploding," said Haddad.
Former British Prime Minister Brown announced on Monday a plan by the Overseas Development Institute to educate those 400,000 Syrian children by employing Syrian refugees who were teachers, opening Lebanese schools 24 hours a day to teach children in double or triple shifts and providing school meals.
"A 100 years ago the Red Cross secured the right that health care should be provided even in conflict. We want in this generation to secure the right of every child to education even when there's a conflict," Brown told reporters.
"Instead of 400,000 Syrian children doing nothing ... perhaps becoming unemployable, a lost generation, a wasted generation, childhood destroyed, we can actually show that in the next few months these 400,000 children can actually get the opportunities they so richly deserve," Brown said.
Brown said $175 million was needed to implement the education plan in Lebanon. Avaaz raised its $1 million donation in the past week from more than 32,000 people in 143 countries, and Western Union also announced it will match consumer donations to its newly created education fund up to $100,000.
"The U.N. Security Council ... has failed the people of Syria. We can't fix that problem today but I can think we can still determine whether the children of this war become a lost generation or a generation of leaders that can rebuild and renew the hope of the country," said Avaaz co-founder Ricken Patel.
The U.N. Security Council has been deadlocked over how to try and end the two-and-a-half year Syrian conflict. Russia and China have refused to consider sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's government and have vetoed three resolutions condemning Assad's crackdown on opposition groups.
A World Bank report said Syria's conflict will cost Lebanon $7.5 billion in cumulative economic losses by the end of 2014. The report was prepared for a U.N. meeting this week to provide humanitarian aid and development assistance and strengthen Lebanon's armed forces.
Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman