This New Year, Let's Work Harder for Children

by Caryl M. Stern, President & CEO, The U.S. Fund for UNICEF

It is said that blowing the ram’s horn, or shofar, signifies the sounding of an alarm, a trumpet blast to help waken the soul in the lead up to Yom Kippur. This is the time to take stock of what we’ve done, and how we’ve lived, apologize and make amends to those we may have wronged.

Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

In this High Holiday season, I am struck by how much the world needs this wake-up call, now more than ever. The situation for children is dire in many parts of the world. Not since World War II have there been so many children on the move — nearly 50 million forcibly displaced by conflict or migrating across borders to escape violence and poverty. Far too many are making perilous journeys by land and by sea, only to become caught in limbo, without access to school or health care or vital support, their childhoods interrupted, even destroyed.

I will never forget the day I stood with a group of weeping mothers outside a service center in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala, when a bus pulled up full of teenagers who had tried to get to the U.S. but were turned away. The kids were silent, downcast, as if they themselves had failed. They didn’t fail. The world had failed them. As I stood on that sidewalk, I thought about how these mothers must have spent their last dimes to buy their kids passage, the same way my grandparents spent their last dime to get my mother out of Europe in 1939. The difference is that my mother, who escaped the Holocaust and arrived in New York at age six, was welcomed and given the chance to build a life and have a future.

In the spirit of atonement, we as a global community must resolve to work harder to ensure that all children everywhere get that same chance. Too many children and families are stuck in overcrowded camps, their lives on hold. We know the toxic effects of stress and trauma on a child’s early development. We know that without proper support and care, a child who is subjected to violence and upheaval is at risk of not reaching their developmental potential. He or she faces a lifetime of struggle, of educational and economic underachievement.

Let’s begin the New Year by committing to do better. Let’s step up our investments in child protection and early childhood development for children on the move.  Every year funding falls billions of dollars short of what is required to meet global needs in education, health care, nutrition and other services. We must work to close these funding gaps, so that we can deliver for children.

And we must press for action to address the root causes of flight. We must continue to work to help strengthen social and legal mechanisms needed to better protect children; to build capacity for health services at the community level; to make schools safer and to provide psychosocial support to those affected by gang violence. To mitigate the desperate conditions forcing children and their families on the run in the first place.

Every child has the right to survive and thrive. Let’s do what it takes to help children fleeing violence and poverty and who are at risk of abuse and exploitation to reclaim their rights. As we celebrate the New Year with family, when we go to synagogue, sit down to a meal, eat our apples and honey and challah, let’s keep in mind what’s truly important. 

Caryl M. Stern, a 2014 JWI Woman to Watch, is President and CEO, U.S. Fund for UNICEF. She is author of the 2013 book, I Believe in Zero, Learning from the World's Children