Nineteen-year-old refugee education campaigner Muzoon Almellehan has become the youngest-ever UNICEF goodwill ambassador. We talked with her about how she became an activist, fighting misconceptions about refugees and her hopes for the future of Syria.
When she was 16 years old, Muzoon Almellehan launched a campaign to persuade more young Syrian refugees like herself to stay in school.
After she and her family fled to Zataari refugee camp in Jordan, she was upset to see many girls getting married young and dropping out of class. In defiance of social customs, she went from tent to tent persuading girls, boys and their parents to allow young people to complete their education.
Now 19 years old and resettled in the U.K., she is not only working hard on her own education but championing the cause of refugee education around the world.
Almellehan was appointed as youngest ever UNICEF goodwill ambassadoron June 19. She is also the first UNICEF ambassador with official refugee status.
“Goodwill ambassadors must exemplify good citizenship and be passionate, courageous, inspiring, caring, principled, credible and capable of acting as influential advocates for children,” said Georgina Thompson of UNICEF. “They must demonstrate leadership in their professions and show enthusiasm to use their professional prestige and networks to promote children’s rights. […] Muzoon fills this criteria perfectly.”
As a goodwill ambassador, Almellehan will advocate at events like the upcoming G20 summit for children affected by conflict or disasters to have safe places to learn, aiming to help influence policy and increase investments into this field.
Refugees Deeply talked with Almellehan about her efforts to convince her peers and their parents of the importance of schooling, the challenges for refugee education and the future of Syria.
News Deeply: You started advocacy for girls to stay in school in Zaatari camp in Jordan. How did this first become an important vocation for you?
Muzoon Almellehan: When I lived in Syria, I loved school and I loved to learn. I knew that with education, I can chase my hopes and dreams, and I was preparing for that and studying very hard. But when the war started, everything became so difficult. Sometimes we couldn’t go to school. Everything became so dangerous.
There was no hope and no future in Syria after the war started. My dad decided to flee our home to Jordan. I was really sad to leave everything behind – my friends, relatives and especially my school. I was worried that I couldn’t continue my education in a refugee camp.
When we arrived at the camp, I found out that there was a school. I was really happy to find learning again. But my happiness wasn’t complete because I saw many girls and also boys who didn’t see education as a priority. So I started my own campaign to encourage them to go back to school and to let them know about the value of learning and education. I was going from tent to tent and door to door to tell them about the school. I spoke with parents and told them to send their children to school.
There were challenges like early marriage, which was [interfering with] education. Many girls dropped out of school to get married. But challenges like these give me a strong motivation to continue my campaign. I want not only myself be an educated person, I want a strong generation for a better future for Syria and for the world.
News Deeply: How did you try to convince the girls and their parents to continue education? What were some of the positive and negative reactions you received?
Almellehan: I was telling them: I know the life in the camp is difficult, we face many challenges but we have to be stronger than our challenges. I told the parents that we have to send our children to school to make them strong. We cannot solve any of the difficulties in our life without education. If we really love our country and if we really want to go back there someday, we have to take this chance and help ourselves. We cannot face the challenges without education.
Some parents listened and said they would try to send our children to school. But others told me it is not my job to tell them and advise them about the importance of education. They think that early marriage is the best way to protect their daughters. They didn’t listen to me. But those people actually gave me stronger motivation to continue. When I started my campaign, I knew that there would be many challenges but also that they wouldn’t be stronger than my hope or stronger than my message, because I know the message of education is really strong. So nobody will stop me to continue.
News Deeply: What changes need to take place to help more refugee girls get to school in Jordan – and other places around the world?
Almellehan: The best way is more assistance – to try to help people so that they have more chances and opportunities to go back to school. We have to show solidarity and work together to help refugees to get access to learning. We cannot do that alone.
And sometimes it is not only important to help them with money or supplies, but also to give them hope with our smile. All of us, as humans, have many things in common. Unfortunately, some people think refugees don’t have hopes and dreams. They think refugees don’t want to go to school and learn. They forget to [show compassion] and stand with them.
But for refugees… it wasn’t their choice to become refugees. They were just faced with difficult situations and circumstances in their countries, which forced them to become refugees. I never thought I would become a refugee one day. But I became a refugee and I didn’t have a choice. We have to change some of the misconceptions about refugees.
News Deeply: Now you’re working on advocacy for refugee education around the world, including with Malala Yousafzai. What parallels and major differences from your own experiences have you found in other parts of the world? Do you think your own experiences made you a better advocate for other refugee students around the world?
Almellehan: We all have different stories. When I met refugees in places like Chad, I saw that every single person has a different story. But in the end, all of us suffered from conflict and war, which forced us flee our homes and become refugees.
Some of them may give up. But some of them don’t, and those stories can make powerful messages to the people all over the world. When we suffer and we still keep our hope alive, we can show people how strong we are and that we really want to find our place in the world, especially with our education.
When I faced challenges in the camp, I didn’t look at the negative things and the difficulties. I focused on myself and how I can achieve something special and remarkable in my community. When I fight for [other refugee students], that makes me strong. And it also is a message to the people that we are not only refugees but also people who can make a change. It is really important for us to believe in ourselves and not give up. Even if the challenges are very tough and they might make us a little bit weaker, they could also make us stronger when we don’t let those challenges defeat us and fight for our rights.
News Deeply: Now you are in the U.K, what are your plans and goals for your time there? What role do you hope to play in the future of Syria?
Almellehan: I have many things I’m planning for. Of course, I will fight for the right of education forever. I’m also now studying for my A-levels in the U.K., and I would love to study politics and international relations [afterwards].
I’d like to go back to my country one day as a strong and educated person, a person who can build something there and to help others to rebuild Syria. I hope to see peace. I love my country so much and I hope to go there one day and to do something for my country.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. This article originally appeared on Refugees Deeply. For weekly updates and analysis about refugee issues, you can sign up to the Refugees Deeply email list.