If there is one issue that touches a raw nerve in Muzoon Almellehan, it is of young girls dropping out of school to get married.
At 19 years, Muzoon is the youngest – and newest - Unicef Goodwill Ambassador. Others who have held the prestigious post include Amitabh Bachchan, Jackie Chan, Sir Roger Moore, Novak Djokovic and David Beckham.
An ardent advocate of the importance of education – particularly for girls – the Syrian teenager who was made ambassador in June this year, is clear about how she hopes to make the world a better place for children. ‘Encouraging them to get an education,’ she says. ‘Education is crucial because it gives stability and helps children cope with [any] trauma that they may have experienced.’
Muzoon knows about trauma only too well.
Born and brought up in the Syrian city of Daraa, Muzoon and her family – parents and three younger siblings – were enjoying a calm and peaceful life until the devastating civil war broke out.
‘My growing years in Syria were very like those of any other regular children. I enjoyed sports and my favourite was football. I used to play it very well. I was going to school every day and was studying very hard. Life was so peaceful, we lived in safety and joy in our beautiful country Syria,’ she says.
But the civil war turned the life of Muzoon’s and millions of others’ topsy turvy.
‘The day I had to flee Syria was very difficult,’ she says, in an exclusive email interview to Friday from her new home the UK. ‘I was so sad and could not stop crying.
‘But the situation was worsening day by day and when my dad saw that there was no hope and future in Syria, he decided to flee to Jordan in 2014.’
Leaving behind everything you’ve ever known and moving to an alien country can be truly traumatic. But even during those challenging times, the girl’s priority was education.
‘I didn’t want to leave behind my friends, relatives… my country where I was born and particularly my school. My apprehension was my studies. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to continue my studies in a refugee camp,’ she says.
When Muzoon was told she could take along only one bag before fleeing their home, the teenager had no doubt what to include in it. ‘I packed all my school books. I wanted to continue studying,’ she says.
School, of course, is not the only thing she misses of her home country. ‘Honestly, I miss everything about my beloved country – I miss the air, trees, houses, streets, friends.. everything about Syria.’
It was while living as a refugee in the various camps in Jordan – particularly Zaatari – that the teenager saw firsthand children missing the chance to get an education. ‘It was shocking to see girls dropping out of school to get married,’ she says.
One of the most shocking and unforgettable moments in Muzoon’s life occurred, she says, when she was in a school in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
‘I’d heard about several incidents of children dropping out of school for various reasons. But the one that moved me the most was when a good friend of mine, a regular at school, suddenly stopped attending classes. She was a good student so I was surprised when she stopped coming to school,’ says Muzoon.
Concerned, she asked some girls what had happened to her friend and was surprised when she found out the reason for her absence.
‘They told me she’d got married and so dropped out of school.’
Her friend was not the only one who quit classes following an early marriage. In less than a year of school, Muzoon found that the number of girl students in her class shrunk from 40 to 20 – all of them having got married.
The Syrian teenager had seen a similar worrying trend while she was a 11th grader in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp. At the time, when she learnt that two of her classmates had dropped out of school to get married, she tried advising them against quitting school. ‘But they didn’t listen. They don’t realise the negative effects of early marriage,’ Muzoon said.
In her new role, Muzoon heard about the dreams of vulnerable girls in Chad
For many parents, it was clear that educating girl children was not a priority. Marriage, they believed, was the only way of protecting the girls and securing their future, and that was reflected in the rate of child marriages among Syrian refugees in Jordan. While 18 per cent of all marriages in 2012 were child marriages, the rate rose to 25 per cent the next year and to 32 per cent in the first quarter of 2014, a Unicef report has revealed.
A United Nations report following a survey conducted last year among Syrian refugees in Lebanon also highlighted some alarming statistics. While at age 9, over 70 per cent of surveyed girls were in school the percentage dropped to an alarming 17 per cent by the time the girls turned 16.
Social workers say that girls with less education are more at risk of becoming child brides.
Keen to stem the rising number of school dropouts, international organisations such as Unicef and Save the Children invited young volunteer activists from refugee camps to meet with and talk to parents about the importance of girls’ education.
Muzoon, who had always been nursing a passion for encouraging children’s education, was quick to sign up. She began visiting tents in the refugee camp exhorting parents to keep their children in school.
‘As a refugee, I saw what happens when children are forced into early marriage or manual labor – they lose out on education and they lose out on possibilities for the future. That’s why I am proud to be working with Unicef to help give these children a voice and to get them into school,’ says Muzoon, who during the 18 months at the Zaatari camp began seriously advocating for children’s particularly girls’ - access to education.
Muzoon was invited to join Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai in Norway to collect her prize
She was thrilled to find that ‘lots of people were listening to me, even fathers’. Her plainspeak and gently convincing manner quickly won her admirers and a sobriquet – the Malala of Zaatari, a reference to the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousufzai who has been championing girls’ education despite threats from the Taliban and taking a bullet in the head.
Muzoon is happy to be associated by name with the Pakistani activist, who is now also in the UK. ‘She [Malala] is a remarkable person, and I’m so proud that we’re friends. We have the same goals for education,’ says Muzoon.
The admiration is clearly mutual. When Malala was named winner of the Nobel Prize two years ago, she invited Muzoon and four other female activists to accompany her to Norway to pick up the prize, a trip Muzoon says ‘was a changing moment in my life’.
Malala, on her part, in an interview to UNHCR said, meeting Muzoon at the Zaatari camp ‘was great. She wants to see peace in every corner of Syria’.
Muzoon agrees. ‘I’d love to study politics and international relations, and after my education I want to return to Syria to help to rebuild it. My hope for the world is to see all children across the globe live in safety, have access to education and go to school.
‘What gives me joy is what I’m doing for education for children around the world. I’m so proud to do that. And I am proud that I’m now the youngest Unicef Goodwill Ambassador and the first refugee ever to be a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador.’
How would she define the term refugee?
‘To me, the term means the beginnings for building a strong person within challenges.
‘The word refugee gives me strength now; it gives me a stronger voice for those who are suffering. It’s a word that tells me how to fight every day for a better future,’ she says.
Muzoon who is attending a local school in the UK, hopes to be a journalist. In a speech delivered in London and watched by dignitaries across the world, she said ‘Syria needs engineers and teachers and doctors and journalists. Without us who will bring peace… Education is power. Education is the future.’
She says she is lucky because her parents – her father Rakan is a teacher and mother Eman a home maker - believe in the value of education. ‘My parents believe in education, especially for their daughters.’
Muzoon recently went with a team from Unicef to the G20 meeting in Hamburg where she met several world leaders including Angela Merkel. ‘It was a great opportunity for me to speak to them about supporting refugees and the right of all children to an education,’ she says.
She also visited Chad and spent several days meeting young refugee girls there. ‘They are facing enormous challenges including having fled from Boko Haram. Meeting them reminded me of my experiences in Syria. Now these girls just want to have a normal life and go to school. I am proud that in my role as Goodwill Ambassador I can give vulnerable girls like these a louder voice in the world.’
In an interview to ONE, a campaigning and advocacy organisation, earlier this year, Muzoon said: ‘Conflict can take away your friends, your family, your livelihood, your home… But it can never take away your knowledge.’
So, what drives her forward?
‘My trust in my God is great,’ she says. ‘I always believe that God will give me more than I deserve, for this reason I always feel positive.’