As Hunger and Despair Loom in Syria, a Student's Reflections on the World Humanitarian Summit

For two days, major players in the humanitarian community gathered at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss the current state of international aid and to call for change. It didn’t receive much attention, but a major focus of the summit was the involvement of youth in humanitarian responses. While many countries sent youth delegates and the summit featured a separate youth forum, No Lost Generation at The George Washington University was the only student-run organization invited to share our work as part of an exhibition fair at the summit. I traveled to Istanbul with six other GW students to participate.

Some of the summit’s most productive discussions took place at the exhibition fair, where groups were free to wander, speak with anyone, and encouraged to make commitments for the role that their organization would play in achieving the summit’s goals. Every individual who stopped by my exhibition booth, and the thousands more who were wandering the halls, speaking with representatives, testing virtual reality programs, and going through a simulation of refugee registration with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, represented a change in the direction of the aid community.

Beyond the summit itself, this trip provided the perfect platform to get a first-hand look at the Syria crisis. In the United States, students often have trouble pulling the refugee crisis from the news cycle and into reality as we do not interact with refugees on a daily basis. One evening, a family with young children, all speaking Arabic, approached us and offered to sell us individual packets of tissues. It felt different than a homeless family we would see in the U.S., as the children were far younger than any I had seen living on the street before. I later learned that these were refugees from Aleppo, a stark reminder that there are millions of refugees in urban areas who do not receive the assistance that others receive in camps or formal programs.

“These students are the ones that the world will call upon to be doctors, teachers, and government officials, when it comes time to move back to Syria.”

Our student group connected with the International Blue Crescent, which took us to a community center for refugees in Sultanbeyli, on the Asian side of Istanbul. At the center, we discussed challenges that the staff faced, such as lack of school buses to transport students to the center and mothers who could not access services at the center because of the demands made by their husbands. Some children work as many as 60 hours per week, leaving no time to attend the center.

We had the opportunity to sit in a room of elementary age refugees, most from Aleppo, a city that has seen some of the worst violence of the Syrian civil war. What touched us all was how normal the students were. They had taken perilous and strenuous journeys to reach Istanbul, despite having spent much of the previous five years coping with airstrike after airstrike on homes, schools, and markets. Despite all of this, they were just like students we see in elementary schools in the United States - smiling, laughing, showing off to their visitors. These students are the ones that the world will call upon to be doctors, teachers, and government officials, when it comes time to move back to Syria.

Meeting the young refugees touched us all, and their kindness and compassion left us with the urge to do more. Our work with local partners on the ground allowed us to witness first-hand the challenges that organizations face in trying to account for funding gaps while supporting refugees.

The World Humanitarian Summit leaves much work to be done, but the new initiatives launched, and the declaration signed stating that education is a core humanitarian need, leave the aid system with a path forward. The burden now lies with those who made commitments to see them through to reality.

I for one pledge that the network of schools making up the No Lost Generation Student Initiative will grow larger, increase our impact in financial and in-kind ways, and continue to give students around the world the chance to assist those who need it most.

Written by Matt Donovan. Matt is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the No Lost Generation Student Initiative and a Senior at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.

(Picture 1 from left to right: Kynat Akram, Maria Hershey and Matt Donovan from No Lost Generation at the World Humanitarian Summit)

(Picture 2: No Lost Generation student delegation visits with Syrian refugees at a community center in Sultanbeyli, Istanbul)