Muzoon Almellehan, on the surface, may seem like any ordinary, young Muslim girl you might meet when travelling in the Middle East or in some American or European neighborhoods. But at 19 years old, she is not only UNICEF’s youngest and first refugee Goodwill Ambassador, but has been known as the “Syrian Malala” for several years because of her work in promoting education for children, especially refugee children.
Like her friend Malala Yousafzai, Almellehan has had to flee violence in her homeland. She reminisces fondly about her normal childhood in Daraa, Syria, going to school every day and engaging in active extracurricular activities such as football. Understandably, when her father decided that the situation in her hometown was hopeless and that the family would need to escape to Jordan, she was devastated at having to leave her friends, relatives, school, and country behind.
“Honestly I miss everything, [especially] my beloved country– I miss the air, trees, houses, streets and every simple detail in Syria,” she laments.
In her background, there are already hints of her future activism in the issue of universal education. She “come[s] from a very educated family where [her father,] aunts and uncles are teachers, and [her] grandfather wanted to teach them all– especially the girls.” Thus, even as a young girl fleeing Syria, she knew the importance of education to her future and thus, the only belongings she brought with her were her schoolbooks. She was especially anxious that she would not be able to continue her studies in a refugee camp and lose future opportunities.
“As a refugee, I saw what happens when children are forced into early marriage or manual labour– they lose out on education and they lose out on possibilities for the future,” said Almellehan.
One incident that especially touched her was that of a friend in school, who she said was a very good student. When the friend suddenly stopped going to school, Almellehan asked the other girls about her and it turns out that the friend had gotten married. While Almellehan had heard of many incidents of child marriage while living in the refugee camp, this one particularly saddened her because she felt the friend had performed so well in school, but squandered her future to get married early.
This was a catalyst that flowered into her activism, which began with her going around to families and persuading parents to allow their daughters and sons to go to school instead of marrying them off early, as well as persuading children to stay in school. She also successfully negotiated her family’s move to the United Kingdom, and became one of the first Syrian refugees resettled there– an opportunity she is grateful for.
Almellehan has continued her advocacy for universal education after she was resettled in the UK and become increasingly recognized in her own right, so far culminating in her being named UNICEF’s youngest and first refugee Goodwill Ambassador. For her, speaking out for all the out-of-school children worldwide with her new platform is her greatest joy and pride.
Already, she has attended the G20 summit in her role as UNICEF ambassador and spoken with multiple world leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, about supporting refugees and universal education. In addition, she has travelled to Chad in a UNICEF capacity to meet with refugee girls, many of whom are facing enormous barriers in regaining their normal lives and education, including some who had fled the control of Boko Haram.
Almellehan is specific about what she wants world leaders to do for these displaced and out-of-school children.
“World leaders must put those children at the top of [their] agenda, and give them equal opportunities. [In particular, [t]hey need to. . . find more investment for education, because an education gives stability and helps children. . . cope with the trauma that they have experienced,” Almellehan says.
As for her own future, she hopes to study journalism and politics or international relations. Most of all, she hopes to help rebuild Syria.
“[Rebuilding Syria] will need doctors, engineers, lawyers, and journalists to make this happen, not ignorant people who have lost hope,” she says.
Despite having gone through such an extraordinary journey, she remains optimistic about the future, and hopes to see all children live in safety and attend school.