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Visiting Ukraine, I saw the promise of postwar stability and prosperity

Visiting Ukraine, I saw the promise of postwar stability and prosperity
Justin van Fleet, president of Theirworld, meets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. (Photo courtesy of Theirworld)

Earlier this month, I set off on one of the most important trips of my life.

I flew to Poland and took a car to the Ukraine border, then continued 400 miles to Kyiv by train. I wanted to explore often-overlooked challenges: How can we prepare a war-torn country to rebuild when peace arrives? How can we equip the next generation not with bullets and bombs, but with knowledge?

I’m the president of the global children’s charity Theirworld, which is working to end the global education crisis. I traveled with our chair and co-founder Sarah Brown to attend a summit hosted by Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska. As Sarah and I arrived, we were reminded of Ukraine’s daily reality: People emerged from basements and emergency shelters after early morning sirens had alerted the city to incoming Russian cruise missiles.

Later, as the summit was taking place, we learned that Russia had bombed a marketplace in the industrial city of Kostiantynivka, killing 17, including a child. We all observed a moment of silence.

I realize that to many of us, Russia’s merciless war against Ukraine seems far away and abstract. Even my most dedicated and optimistic friends despair about what anyone can do. But I’ve seen that we can make a difference. For the past year, Theirworld’s Global Business Coalition for Education has worked with two companies, HP and Microsoft, to provide 70,000 laptops and other devices so that children displaced in Ukraine and living abroad as refugees can continue their studies.

We acted quickly, knowing that in the first year of Russia’s war, 22 schools were attacked daily, and education was disrupted for more than 5 million children. This is just a fraction of the 75 million children worldwide whose education is interrupted each year by conflict or emergency. Since launching this Digital Equity for Ukraine campaign at Washington’s Ukraine House in July 2022, we have reached more than 1.5 million children.

From left: Justin van Fleet and Sarah Brown, leaders of nonprofit groups Global Business Coalition for Education and Theirworld, meet Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. (Photo courtesy of Theirworld)

We can do more. We must do more. At the summit in Kyiv, Sarah led a session on youth and education with the spouses of leaders from three countries as well as actor Richard Gere, who has championed fundraising efforts for Ukraine’s children.

The most important part of the day: Our face-to-face meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky to discuss what more can be done to help restore a sense of hope through education. He welcomed our support for two new priorities to get ready for a time of peace and healing. First, accelerated science and math education to equip young people to rebuild Ukraine. Second, an initiative to help children in the early years, age 5 and under, to ensure safety and quality preschool education.

I write this as a father of an infant, and as someone who has benefited greatly from education. My friends around the world focus on ensuring that our own kids have the best start in life and a safe place to learn. But we know that a rising tide lifts everyone. We should advocate for all children’s universal right to education, to reach their full potential. The skills, knowledge and attitudes we instill today will determine stability and sustainability for the next generations.

When the world’s leaders met in New York last week for the United Nations General Assembly, our organization hosted an #ActForEarlyYears event, calling on all countries to invest in quality education for our youngest children. Yevhen Kudrivets, Ukraine’s first deputy minister for education and science, joined us and shared President Zelensky’s request to usher in this new era for Ukraine’s youngest learners. We announced a new partnership to support early childhood education and development in Ukraine.

I trust policymakers and parents will join me and my colleagues in finding ways to enhance these early years. for the sake of Ukraine, for the sake of peace—for all of us.

Justin van Fleet is president of the global children’s charity TheirWorld and executive director of its Global Business Coalition for Education.

Justin van Fleet