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International Youth Day

International Youth Day

Today marks International Youth Day. For the more than 8 million displaced young people—ages 15 to 24—around the world, there is little cause for celebration. Most of these young people are not in school—and many have never even been to school. The majority struggle to find work and are often unemployed. Sadly, the reality for most refugee youth is that they will be displaced from their homes for an average of 17 years.

This year’s Youth Day theme is Dialogue and Mutual Understanding, which reminds me of a conversation I had in Amman, Jordan, with a young man from Iraq named Abdul. Abdul1 is 18 years old, slightly built with a charming smile. When we first met, he told me, “I have talked to people like you before, but nothing changes.” After hearing his story, I understand why he said this. Abdul is originally from northern Iraq, which suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime. And yet, he told me that had there been no war, he would have finished school and “had a future.”

Back home in Iraq, Abdul attended school through ninth grade before having to flee the country. When we met, he had yet to return to school. Jordan has allowed Iraqi refugees to attend school free of charge since 2007, but for Abdul, this wasn’t an option. Government restrictions prevent refugees from re-entering the formal school system if they are older than 13 and have missed more than three years of school.

After arriving in Jordan, Abdul was offered the opportunity to take a course in auto repair or computer maintenance, but the training was too far away to walk to and he couldn’t afford the transportation costs. He currently doesn’t have a job, because like the majority of refugees living in Jordan, he isn’t allowed to legally work. Abdul told me that he wants to go to another country to finish his education. He wants to go on to university and study mathematics or foreign languages and eventually become a teacher.

Abdul’s story is similar to those of the hundreds of displaced young women and men I’ve spoken to over the years. From Burmese refugees in rural Thailand, to southern Sudanese returning home after decades of war, to Liberians resettling in the United States, young people have said they want education and job training in order to take back their future.

Although many of these young people are not in school, the vast majority are working in some capacity. But because they lack the necessary skills to find safe, regular work, they wind up doing jobs like cleaning houses in Khartoum, selling cigarettes at traffic lights in Monrovia or working illegally in Bangkok factories. Jobs like these are usually part-time, unreliable and offer no legal protections, leaving young people vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Young people don’t want handouts; they want to work and to be self-reliant. When I asked a young Iraqi woman living in Amman about the monthly financial assistance her family receives from the United Nations, she told me, “More than cash, I prefer employment. [It is] better to give me a job.”

When conflicts end and young people go home, they want to have the necessary knowledge and skills to help rebuild their communities. On a recent visit to Liberia, a young man in high school said, “My father died when I was five. Nobody helps me. I pay my own school fees. I…go around the community asking if anyone needs their yard work done. Sometimes I go to the hole [quarry] and bust rock. My dream is to become an agriculturalist, to go to the soil and make food for my country.”

So what have these conversations revealed about what displaced youth need? That these young men and women have dreams and goals for their future, but that in order to fulfill them, they need educational services that include basic literacy and numeracy as well as vocational training based on what the local market and community need. The international community must make these opportunities available to them while they are displaced. Youth-focused programming should also include entrepreneurial training, such as how to build and market a business. As many of their futures remain unknown, programs should aim to train young people in transferable skills that will be useful regardless of where they end up.

International Youth Day is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to dialog and mutual understanding with displaced youth, and more importantly to take concrete steps that result in improving the lives of young men like Abdul.

Take Action here and ask Congress to dedicate additional funding to humanitarian programs in 2011. This would allow the U.S. to strengthen its support for programs that help displaced young people whose lives have been upended by war. Click here.

1 Not his real name.