THINK OF THE CHILDREN

Lebanon 2016 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, on the body's long history in Lebanon, its work in response to events in the region, and initiatives to ensure education for refugee children.

Irina Bokova
BIOGRAPHY
Irina Bokova is the Director General of UNESCO. She previously served two terms as a member of the National Parliament of Bulgaria and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Foreign Affairs under PM Zhan Videnov. She also served as Bulgaria's ambassador to France and Monaco.

What are the main activities that UNESCO will pursue in Lebanon?

UNESCO and Lebanon have a long and rich history of partnership, now in its 54th year. Over this time, our partnership has gone from strength to strength, drawing on shared values that have profound roots in the society and history of Lebanon. The wealth of cultural heritage in Lebanon is an open door to the cultural diversity of the Mediterranean, and a strategic asset for intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding. UNESCO is committed to making the most of it for future generations, building on the rich history of Lebanon and its connection with Mediterranean cities. I had the pleasure of nominating Maha El-Khalil Chalabi as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for her commitment to the protection of the city of Tyre, a gateway to the history of humanity. We also rely on the support of the UNESCO International Center for Human Sciences in Byblos to advance cooperation in social sciences and promote a culture of peace. Our Beirut office is the Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States, currently serving 19 Arab nations, and at the same time functioning as a multi-sectoral cluster office for Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories.

How have the current events surrounding Lebanon impacted UNESCO's scope of action in the country?

We have renewed our deep commitment to Lebanon and the Arab region in challenging times. As a result of the Syrian crisis, UNESCO has been working with UN agencies and partners to support the Lebanese government in its successive Lebanon Crisis Response Plans, particularly through the Ministry of Education and Higher Education's (MEHE) Reaching All Children with Education (RACE) strategy, which aims to provide quality education opportunities to all children and youth in Lebanon who have been affected by the Syrian crisis, ensuring the mainstreaming of forcibly displaced people into the national education system. Lebanon is coping with more than a million Syrian refugees, with immense pressure on host communities and institutions, and I wish to commend the government for its unfailing commitment to bolstering the resilience of all women and men in the face of an unprecedented crisis. This is a lesson of courage and dignity for all. I see this same spirit in Lebanon's commitment to the new global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. UNESCO's role will continue to be clear—to support and accompany the government and society of Lebanon in all its efforts to realize its goals to strengthen the foundations for poverty eradication for inclusive sustainable development and lasting peace across the region.

How is UNESCO partnering with the Lebanese government to incorporate and integrate Syrian refugee children into Lebanese educational centers?

UNESCO works arm-in-arm with the government in this respect, contributing in particular with the MEHE through technical, financial, and operational support to the implementation of the national RACE strategy and its updated version that envisages a more strategic approach to the education sector response on the premise of a stabilization and development agenda that will guide the work of the ministry for the next five years. UNESCO worked with the ministry to design a national non-formal education policy framework to allow school-aged children who missed out on several years of education to catch up with their schooling and reintegrate into the formal system through certified programs in early childhood education, basic literacy and numeracy, and accelerated learning. We also closely work with the government to develop an accelerated learning program for youth, which will allow students who finished their Grade 9 and obtained their brevet or equivalent but who have been out of school for some time to transition into formal secondary education. The message of UNESCO's Constitution drafted 71 years ago has never been so relevant. The defenses of peace must be built in the minds of women and men, starting with young minds, beginning on the benches of school.