Returning to school — not an ordeal but a right

By now, most Canadian children have returned safely to school after enjoying their summer holidays. The binders and other supplies have been bought, sometimes returned and exchanged, and the kids — and parents — are settling down.

For many children around the globe, however, summer wasn’t a time for rest or holiday — and the delivery of binders has never made it. In the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia for example, school starts mid-month and the severe drought has hit communities hard. With families still struggling to find water and food, many children don’t know if they’ll be able to return to school at all when classes start in just a few days.

But, in my few visits to the country and in conversations with my colleagues in the region, I can tell you that all of them desperately want to return to school despite the very real challenges.

Just consider the story of 14-year-old Elshaday.

Her day begins with a three-kilometre hike to fetch water, since the local well has run dry. Then, she feeds her family’s cattle and helps farm their tiny plot. Only then does she begin her walk to school. It’s an hour away.

Elshaday’s typical morning would exhaust even the strongest adult. You might think this overworked youngster would dread school; but Elshaday never misses a class. For her, school is a recess from the hardships of daily life. It’s an opportunity to learn and play. School offers the chance to dream of something better — a diploma and the chance to provide for her family.

Sadly, many children in Ethiopia abandon their education during times of drought. Their parents need them to stay home to help make ends meet.

Thankfully, people around the world are working in partnership to keep children like Elshaday in school. They’ve put together programs that maintain and build classrooms, provide essential school supplies and meals when they might otherwise go hungry; they help families with funding.

These communities and families desperately need our help to feed and equip kids like Elshaday for school. Millions of children are caught in a cycle of poverty that only education can break.

Sometimes here at home we forget that school isn’t a privilege but a right. We get lost in our ever-complex school supply lists — green binders, separators and emoji this or that — and we forget that many people fought hard to ensure our kids would be at school; not at work. According to law our children must go to school. They must enjoy and experience what it is to be young — and to learn in peace and safety. However too many children can’t go to school and end up working long hours only to get a few pennies with which to support their families.

These children should be at school, away from the daily ordeal of droughts, war and poverty affecting their countries.

It would be great if parents, children and teachers across Canada could, for this month in particular, reflect on this fact and maybe do something to help children like Elshaday spend her time at school — and not waste her youth elsewhere.

This is why the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and our more than 4,500 supporters across Canada invest so many resources to schools in places like Ethiopia, India, the Middle East and Ukraine. We’ve seen that when children are cared for, and supported in education, they become a force of change for the best in their family, town and country.

Today, in our ultra-connected and often consumption-driven world, let’s remember that back-to-school is not just a shopping season, not just something to dread, but a right that is not fully applied around the world and a sure pathway to greater peace, stability and wealth throughout the world.

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