Muzoon Almellehan, 21, is a Syrian refugee, education activist and one of the youngest UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors.
1. What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about education, and I always have been. School has always been an important part of my life. When we lived in Syria, my father was a teacher. From an early age he instilled in me the value of education. I was around four at the time when he told me that the power that education gives you is incomparable to anything else – and once you have knowledge, nothing can take it away from you, not even war.
2. What inspired you to advocate for children’s access to education, particularly for girls?
Every day, children, in particular girls are deprived of their right to go to school and learn, putting them at risk of being forced into marriage and trapping them in poverty and deprivation. In times of conflict, if this is their start in life, how can they ever secure peace and prosperity or rebuild their countries when the conflict is over? If a girl isn’t in school she is exposed and vulnerable, and left unable to learn how to turn her ideas and her dreams into reality. In this state of living, how will she create and think for herself? How will she learn about the world and decide what her role in it will be? I ask the girls I speak to these questions to help them find their own way and to help empower them to think of what life could be, not what life has become.
3. What are some of the challenges that you face in your advocacy work?
There are so many injustices in the world today giving so many of us the reason to stand up and speak out against the challenges that affect us the most. As activists all of us face challenges – for some people it’s easier to ignore us than to admit there’s a crisis that needs addressing. But, I will never give up my fight for education. When I fled Syria into Jordan and arrived at Za’atari refugee camp, it was like living a nightmare. But then I realized there was a school run by UNICEF. It changed everything for me and gave me hope. But there were so many girls and boys not attending classes, I felt like I had to do something. So we formed a group and went out, tent to tent, to encourage children to go to school and most importantly to get their parents to let them go. It was hard work in the desert sun, but it worked, gradually children started coming back. I have seen for myself how education can change the trajectory for a child whom otherwise might have been trapped in poverty, forced to marry early, and left disenfranchised and powerless.
4. What are some of the highlights of your advocacy work?
There is one girl I will never forget. She asked to be called Hassima to protect her identity. Hassima was 16 years old when I met her. She was living as a refugee in Chad having fled Nigeria where she had been held in captivity by Boko Haram. For three years her captors drugged and sexually and physically assaulted her. We talked together in the hospital she was staying in. Hassima was shaking because of the physical and psychological abuse she endured, but also because of the detox process she was going through after being forcibly drugged for so long. I asked her how long she was told she’d need to stay in the hospital. “Six months. Six months of intensive treatment,” she said. It was a long road to recovery, especially after everything she’d already been through, but she told me there was light at the end – as she’d get to go back to school to catch up on what she’d missed over the years.
I remember in that moment feeling so overwhelmed. I knew how important education was, I’d always known. But when that brave young girl, not much younger than myself, sat looking me in the eye, having described how she was drugged and assaulted for her entire teenage years – denied even the most basic human rights – telling me that she still has hope because at the end of that horror she can return to school – that is the moment the importance of education was further cemented into my entire being.
5. What is a project or initiative that you have worked on that you are most proud of?
I’m proud and humbled to have met such incredible children and young people in my work as an education activist and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. In addition to meeting children and young people whose education had been disrupted by conflict, I have travelled the world speaking at events including the United Nations General Assembly and the 2017 meeting of the Group of Twenty. My work has been recognized at Glamour’s 2017 Women of the Year Award, BBC 100 Women, Teen Vogue 21 under 21, and others. That bleak day when I left Syria, just starting out my teenage years and losing most of what I knew and loved, if you’d have told me that a few years later I would be travelling the world advocating for children’s education and sharing stages with world leaders, I would’ve thought you were crazy. But here I am, and I’m never going to stop until my mission is complete.
6. What have you learned being an advocate for girls’ education?
Living as a refugee and seeing how children and young people had lost everything they knew, but still felt a sense of hope when they went to school -- that is why I do what I do and that is the message I’m trying to spread -- in the middle of the darkness, learning gives you light. Children and young people have so much potential, and with the knowledge they get from going to school, creates immense opportunity.
We need to start making use of all the potential that young people can offer, and the only way to do that is through education. And when I say education I mean quality education where the next generation and those that follow afterwards are inspired, where they learn relevant skills and are taught relevant subjects, where they are able to think and create for themselves, and where they have the freedom to explore new ideas, freedom to explore the world through school.
7. What do you believe has contributed to your success?
My faith in the potential of my generation, in the willingness to be part of the change they want to see in this world.
8. What is your advice for young people who want to see a better world, who want to do something about it, but who are not sure how to start?
I have faith in our generation to rise up higher than ever against the injustices we are facing today. Where children are denied their right to go to school. Where their freedom has been taken away from them. I have faith because everywhere I go in the world, I’ve seen hope and I’ve seen children and young people taking responsibility and becoming the new architects of what’s possible, the architects of a world that works for all of us. But we need to champion young people, all of them, and show them empathy, compassion, kindness and strength so they can fight for their education.
We cannot risk giving up on this fight. We have too much to lose. We must find and learn new ways to reach equality. We must learn new lessons and employ them. We must use them in our own work and in our own moment. And most urgently, we need to learn how to feel empathy again, and to use that empathy and speak up with courage. We owe it to the next generation.