Opinion Piece in Italian Newspaper La Repubblica

Italy, 04 June 2016

The Mediterranean Sea has been a longstanding observer of human history, bearing witness to the first voyages across the water, the competing empires of the ancient world and the national rivalries of the last century. The rich and complex history of the region has many stories, and each of those stories has many perspectives.

Today, however, the Mediterranean no longer represents the struggle for power, but the plight of the powerless. 

The bodies that wash up on Europe’s beaches, the packed vessels drifting across the water and the families risking everything to make the perilous journey has only one, simple interpretation: the failure of the international community to address this crisis, and to do so with humanity and compassion. 

The people of Italy know only too well the consequences of failure. Every day on Italy’s southern shores, local communities, aid agencies and government bodies are working side-by-side to help refugees displaced from their homes. Together they are providing enormous assistance and compassion to those arriving, hungry and needy. Italy is not alone – it is a situation that is playing out in countries such as Turkey and Greece as well. 

When refugees, many of whom have nothing but a handful of belongings, are asked what they want above all else, there is a common answer: education. They recognise the lifeline that education gives - for themselves personally to fulfil their lives, and for their families to prosper and thrive. For every child that is denied the opportunity to learn, not only is the light slowly extinguished on their aspirations, but we are all deprived of the contribution they would have given. 

I have dedicated my life to the provision of quality education, both in Qatar and wherever there is need. Through my foundation, Education Above All, we have invested to provide primary education for almost seven million children and we are on track to reach 10 million by the end of the year. This will include over one million Syrian refugees.

Yet, one of the most heartbreaking things we see is that the schools we have spent years building can be destroyed in a matter of minutes when conflict breaks out. What’s worse is that all too often this destruction is not an accident; it is deliberate. Indeed, between 2009 and 2012, there were at least 30 countries that were heavily affected by attacks on schools. From gunmen executing 145 teachers and students in Peshawar to the kidnapping of 276 girls in northern Nigeria, from the disappearance and presumed murder of 33 students in Mexico to the intentional bombing of schools in Gaza: our schools have become battlefields. 

I believe this is a global crisis and it is time to fight back. We must hold those responsible for these crimes accountable by enforcing international laws designed to protect schools. It is only when those who are guilty are shamed and punished that we can deter others from attacking education and make schools the safe havens they should be. 

Let us not forget that the perpetrators are doing more than destroying the lives and futures of the children that are affected; they are locking communities into a cycle of perpetual conflict. Our determination to deliver education may be motivated by humanity and compassion, but at its heart is a sense of justice. 

Through my initiatives, and as a UN advocate for the 2030 sustainable development goals, I am working with others to raise awareness of these issues. In my meetings this week with His Holiness Pope Francis and Prime Minister Renzi, I will be discussing the plight of refugees, the critical importance of education and what we can do now to prevent future crises. 

The international community must match these efforts by holding those attacking education to account so that a new generation are not robbed of their dreams.