Nothing seemed to bring about more rage in her than finding him with a newspaper; she’d rush at him in fury and snatch it from his hands. She used to be so tenderhearted–one of warmest people he’d ever met. She had welcomed him into her home and instructed him in his early reading lessons, but had become a stone–convinced by her husband’s warning against his learning.
“He should know nothing but to obey,” he reprimanded the boy and his wife, “and to do as he is told to do.” Anything more than that would make him unfit for them, and there would be no keeping him; for learning would make him immediately unmanageable, rebellious–even dangerous. Plus, he would grow terribly unhappy–a nuisance with which no one needed to be bothered.
The very decided manner in which the man spoke convinced the boy that he could rely confidently on the results of his learning. Whatever was kept hidden in books was to be sought because it would make him unfit to keep–the outcome the man most dreaded and the boy most desired. He was shown the door, the gateway to freedom from beneath the man’s tyranny. However trying the challenge, he decided to learn to read and write–his very life depended on it.
On his errands, he’d sneak a book and take a piece of bread along with him. He’d finish quickly, just in time to exchange a lesson for bread from one of the street boys who could read. With chalk, he’d scratch letters onto brick walls and pavement and copy the words from a spelling book until they looked just right.
It wasn’t long after he’d learned to read that the discontentment forecasted through his learning rushed over him. His bondage now had words, yet no remedy. He was tormented by the ache for freedom, yet all the more determined to have it one day.
At sixteen, he met two men who wanted to read and write, but like him, they weren’t permitted. He devoted himself to teaching them in secret. Friends got word of it, and in time, over forty people began to sneak weekly into their makeshift school, hoping with all their hearts to learn to read. The great light shed on their mental darkness was–to them–well worth a wretched beating should they be caught.
Decades later, this boy became one of the most prolific writers, orators, and intellectuals of his day, advising presidents and lecturing thousands both at home and as a diplomat. It was he who held the highest appointed public post in Washington. It was he who became the first African American citizen nominated for Vice Presidency. And it was he who was the most prominent abolitionist and civil rights advocate in American history.
His name was Frederick Douglass. And he was a runaway slave.
Out of all his accomplishments and positions, he recalled the humble days teaching fellow slaves in a makeshift school as the sweetest engagement to which his whole life was blessed; for it was his greatest privilege to make them fit to forge difficult passes into free states, as the illiterate and unlearned were left vulnerable and more susceptible to capture and torture. Likewise, his own education was the means to his own freedom–and later, the freedom of 3 million enslaved people through his paramount role in Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Douglass understood that the unlearned mind was an injustice that begot injustice. “It’s easier to build strong children,” he noted, “than to repair broken men.” And, indeed, he is evidence of this–that education can shift an impossible current, free people, and change an entire nation.
It makes me stop and think. With the millions of people displaced and enslaved today by war, are we–as a well-intentioned international community–so attuned to meeting immediate needs with measurable results that we are blind to what might come in the next century?
Are we blind to the obvious repercussions of millions of children growing up without so much as a primary and secondary education? Are we blind to the power of education in shifting an impossible current, freeing people, and changing the future of nations? Education during displacement is not a new concern, but it is certainly an increasingly relevant one, as the world faces mass exoduses of people in recent years unlike any other time in history.
At the end of 2015, the U.N’s refugee agency reported that the number of displaced people, asylum-seekers, and those uprooted within their own country totaled 65.3 million people globally–or one out of every 113 people on earth, compared to 59.5 million people only one year prior. “It is the first time in the organization’s history that the threshold of 60 million has been crossed”–reaching its largest figure since World War II, roughly equal to the population of the United Kingdom. (UNHCR)
And in Iraq alone 4.7 million people out of the 10 million in need of humanitarian assistance are children–1 in 3 children–numbers that are rising quickly as the conflict there continues. From within the country, 3.3 million have been displaced, and virtually half of them are children (UNICEF). And children of war are the most vulnerable to abduction, enslavement, recruitment into fighting, and sexual violence.
Education has the power to fortify young refugees for their unforeseen future in the same way it did 19th Century American slaves as they forged dangerous passes to freedom. Regular engagement with committed teachers and peer relationships provided through schooling can be a lifesaving intervention for refugees right now, while also serving to guard their futures. Without a doubt, it is a personal catastrophe to forgo education during displacement, but millions–even hundreds–going without education creates a civil catastrophe and devastation that extends well past the current decade.
Of course, schools–specifically in Iraq–are not equipped to handle the ongoing influx of students because of the strain on their already limited resources. Schools and teachers are overextended. We have to give attention and commitment to the acute and assiduous work of educating children to strengthen the backbone of a country towards self-sustainment and needed change.
Lastly, it’s worth considering who among the children uprooted by war are the next national leaders, thinkers, doctors, scientists, and great poets...the Frederick-Douglass-types. They need only a hand and means to learn and grow despite their current circumstances. Perhaps it is they who are most equipped to lead and influence us all, not in spite of their current circumstance, but because of it.
Please consider giving to The Refuge Initiative in their efforts on this front. They have built a school in Soran, Iraq to educate up to 600 IDP children from Mosul, Fallujah, and the Sinjar region in Iraq.
“Books, not bombs, are tangibly changing the course of Iraq.”
–Tim Buxton Iraq Country Director, The Refuge Initiative."
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
by Frederick Douglass, 1845