Muzoon Almellehan loves learning. Before the war forced her to flee her home in Daraa, southwest Syria, she was a dedicated student, pouring her energies into acing her ninth-grade exams. When, in 2014, she and her family left for Zaatari camp in Jordan, Almellehan worried that would be the end of the education she treasured.
According to UNICEF, as of May, there were 330,434 Syrian refugees under the age of 18 registered in Jordan and less than 45 percent of them were in any kind of formal education. With host countries focused on providing food, shelter and healthcare, education often drops down the list of priorities, but advocates warn that out-of-school refugee children are at higher risk of exploitation for child marriage and child labor.
In Syria and then in Jordan, Almellehan, now 18, was vocal in her belief that all refugee children deserve to go to school. Her campaigning earned her the nickname “the Malala of Syria,” after Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, the education activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who survived an attack by Taliban gunmen in 2012. Almellehan and Yousafzai are friends, having first met in Azraq, another Jordanian refugee camp, and bonded over their advocacy work.
Lucky enough to be able to keep up with her schooling in Jordan, Almellehan moved again at the end of 2015. UNHCR sent her, her parents and her three siblings to Newcastle, in the north of England, where they were among the first of the 20,000 Syrians the U.K. has pledged to take in by 2020. Now preparing for her exams, Almellehan spoke with Women & Girls Hub about adapting to her new home, her friendship with Yousafzai and her dedication to making education a right for children all over the world.
Women & Girls Hub: What was happening at school before you fled Syria with your family?
Almellehan: Before leaving the country I was in the ninth grade, which is such an important year in Syria. It is the year you should study so hard to get high marks to be able to choose the subjects you want in the 10th grade. I was studying hard, but there were so many problems in Syria at the time. There were so many dangers and difficulties, so my family decided to leave.
Women & Girls Hub: What happened when you arrived at Zaatari camp in Jordan?
Almellehan: When I arrived at the camp, I thought I would lose my education. I was so sad because I knew that I would lose everything important in my life. Then I was so happy when I discovered I would still be able to attend school. I started within three weeks of arriving.
Women & Girls Hub: Do all children have the chance to go to school in the camps?
Almellehan: Classes were available to every child but not everyone went to school. Inside the camp, people lost their dreams for the future. People started to think it was not important to get an education. Many of the boys and girls were out of school. Some parents would say, “We will send our children to school again when we return to Syria.” I told them we don’t know when we will be able to return to Syria.
Women & Girls Hub: What subjects were you able to study while living as a refugee?
Almellehan: I did everything that was normal for the ninth grade, including science, math, physics, geography and Arabic language.
Women & Girls Hub: What is your favorite subject?
Almellehan: Science is a beautiful one for me. It includes so many things that happen in our daily lives. I also like studying English. In Syria, we weren’t learning English so much, so I started to teach myself. When I had free time in the camps and I didn’t have any homework, I would teach myself new words and grammar in English.
Women & Girls Hub: How did you end up relocating to Newcastle in the U.K.?
Almellehan: We lived in two camps in Jordan. We were there for a total of about a year and a half. Then UNHCR said we would have the opportunity to immigrate. They asked us where we thought would be good to go and we said England. It is good to go there to study in English and the opportunities will be good in the future. We arrived in Newcastle in December last year.
Women & Girls Hub: How has it been?
Almellehan: At first, everything was so hard. It was so cold. The school was very different and it was hard to learn subjects in a new language. But after one or two months it became easier. Everyone is very friendly here.
Women & Girls Hub: What do you want to do when you finish school?
Almellehan: I want to be a journalist and to continue my activities related to education. I will fight for children to have the right to an education at any time and place. I will do everything I can. Education is the best way to help a community grow and to improve the situation for the future.
Women & Girls Hub: You are good friends now with Malala Yousafzai, the teen education campaigner who also lives in the U.K. She’s even come to visit you in Newcastle. What is she like?
Almellehan: She inspires me so much, she is such a kind girl. When you meet a person who has been through what she has, it makes you realize you can face all the challenges in your life. I hope together we can be strong and stand up for education around the world.