The bullet that eventually lodged itself into Malala Yousafzai’s shoulder may as well have landed on the desks of every internationally known newspapers editor’s desk for all the ricocheting reverberations it made. While she lay recovering in a UK hospital, her name appeared across media headlines. The Guardian asked “What had Malala Yousafzai done to the Taliban?” She made The New York Times front cover reading “Taliban Gun Down Girl Who Spoke Up for Rights.” Even now, her name still permeates throughout social media feeds on her latest actions and the awards she has received in honor of her bravery and dedication to the promotion of universal education.
Yet one name has yet to penetrate the echelons of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—one who has done just as much for the promotion of a child’s right to education. She is 18-year-old Syrian Muzoon Almellehan.
Originally from the city of Darra, in southwestern Syria, Almellehan and her family crossed the border into Jordan late one night in February of 2013. Her first question to her father when they settled into Zaatari, one of the world’s biggest refugee camps, was “where can I go to school?”
Amongst her community of war survivors, Almellehan has been the constant voice of for eduction, especially important as girls as are often the first in the school camps to drop out. For this, she has been named the “Malala of Syria.” During her three years at two different refugee camps—Zaatari and Azraq—Almellehan tirelessly campaigned against the increasing number of child marriages amongst her female peers.
While attending school in Zaatari, Almellehan noticed that halfway through the school year the number of 40 girls attending had dropped to 20. “A lot of them thought education for a girl was unimportant,” she told the Daily Beast. “They were [using] all different reasons, but no one was important enough to drop them out of school.” Child marriages weren’t common when she was in Syria, yet they were becoming alarmingly common inside the camps. “The trend spread as an infection between people. Maybe [parents] thought it was to protect the girl and secure her future—they imagine this is a solution to all their problems.”
According to UNICEF, the number of child marriages in Syria is only increasing. At the outbreak of civil war in 2011, there was a 13 percent rate of child marriages. In 2014, there had been a sharp increase to 32 percent. This means that over 10,000 young girls under the age of 18 have entered into a marriage.
For many Syrian families in refugee camps, marrying their daughters off is seen as their only means to protect them from the military ISIS groups, kidnappings and other dangers in the camps. Educational opportunities, however, become increasingly more limited as many of the girls who get married start families soon afterwords.
In the Zaatari refugee camps, international organizations like Save the Children and UNICEF took notice of this rise and began a campaign, enlisting girls to advocate to parents throughout the camps on the importance of education.Almellehan found her voice in what she herself was most passionate about: education. Parent-to-parent, child-to-child, girl-to-girl, she slowly began to make her impact felt.
In the four years since Almellehan fled her home in Darra, she has been a voice for Syrian refugee children in her fight for their education. In a blog for the Malala Fund website, she expressed her disappointment in the lack of action taken by the world leaders at the Syrian refugee crisis conference held at the United Nations in September. “I found it impossible to understand how much money has been promised, what had been paid, and what has been achieved on the ground,” she wrote. “It seemed that donors could not even agree on what they had promised or paid. So I stood up and reminded the ministers and ambassadors that I was speaking up for millions of children who are not numbers but real people with hopes and dreams for a better future.”
At the Support Syria and The Region aid conference held this past February in London, world leaders pledged more than $10 billion to help fund the creation of schools, education, housing and job placement for the Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron stated that the money “will save lives, will give hope, will give people the chance of a future.”
“Sometimes I think leaders make promises when the world is watching,” Almellehan wrote. “I want them to know that Malala and I will keep watching. We have to make sure that when politicians and diplomats make promises, they do not forget them when they leave.”
The world of social media and global media took notice of Malala’s message of global education. Now the world needs to pay attention to Almellehan’s message—both to provide Syrian refugees with an education and to hold world’s leaders accountable on their promises for said education.
“Education is everything,” Almellehan said in an interview with Glamour. “Children are the future, children need an education to create the future. Without education we can’t rebuild Syria. Without education we can’t fight for our rights, we can’t help ourselves, our people. So, without education we have nothing.”
Kari Lindberg is a multi-media journalist covering the American prison system, immigration and the financial world.