THE BLOG

The Girl Known As 'Syria's Malala'

22/12/2016 12:47 GMT | Updated 22/12/2016 12:47 GMT

It is not often that girls of Arab and Asian descent are described as empowered; the type that go against every stereotype as the meek and weak female who need saving from the wider world.

One such young woman is 18 year old Muzoon Almellahan.

A refugee from Syria resettled in the UK, she has been described as the 'Malala of Syria' for her activism against child marriage and for girls' education.

I met Muzoon at the annual Young Muslim Writers Awards (www.ymwa.org.uk) in December where she received the Special Recognition Award for 'Championing Children's Rights to Education'.

Muzoon's story begins in Daraa, a Syrian city which is often described as the 'cradle of the revolution'. In 2011 about fifteen boys from prominent families sprayed anti government slogans on walls. Their subsequent treatment sparked the beginning of the Syrian uprising which is still being played out in all its destruction and witnessed by the world through the power of social media.

Muzoon's family remained in Daraa until 2013 but when the violence increased, she and her parents, two brothers and sister fled their homes to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. After a short stay, they were forced to move to Azraq camp which was built to house a hundred thousand refugees. I ask her about the experience of living in refugee camps for three years.

"At first it was hard to get used to new people, and a completely new situation. I was very worried about missing my education because we left Syria when I was in Year 9 - a very important year for exams. I carried all my books to Jordan and I was so happy when I found out there was a school in the camp. I enrolled as soon as I could and kept going to classes the whole time I was in Jordan."

It was in these camps that Muzoon's activism took shape. She was noticing more and more girls were dropping out of lessons to get married.

"When I went to classes, I was shocked that so many girls the same age as me were talking about getting married and not focusing on their studies. I started to talk to them about the importance of education. When you are a refugee, one of the only things you can take with you is your education. It gave me hope to continue my studies in the camp and I tried to persuade other families to keep their children's hopes and dreams alive by sending them to school."

There is no denying that child marriage existed before the conflict, but the mass displacement has led to an increase in child marriage within families that would never have practised it otherwise. An overwhelming reason for marrying young daughters off quickly is to protect them from poverty and sexual violence. Some are young as twelve years old. Many girls enter these marriages because they do not wish to be perceived as a burden on their struggling families.

I ask Muzoon about the child brides. In her opinion, were they happy to get married or did she think they were being forced into marriage?

"I think many of them didn't know what marriage really means. Men would come to the camps looking for brides, and their families would arrange it. Some girls got divorced after a short time and that made the situation even worse for them, especially if they had children."

Muzoon's family was one of the 1000 Syrians selected for relocation to the UK and given refugee status on arrival. Newcastle is her new home. I ask her if she likes England. "Yes I do although the weather is a bit cold and it is hard to understand the Geordie accent in Newcastle! Of course Syria will always be my home, but in the UK I am going to a good school and I am able to continue my education. I feel very lucky to be here."

She is good friends with Malala Yousafzai. Both are campaigners for girls' education, role models themselves. I ask her what it's like to be compared to Malala.

"I am so proud to have Malala as my friend. She is inspiring and she is also very nice. We get on so well. I am very happy to work with the Malala Fund too, campaigning for girls' education. Along with my own education, I am working hard to make sure that all girls everywhere have access to 12 years of free, safe, quality education."

Her plans for her own career?

"I hope that I will do well at school and then go to university. In future I would like to be a journalist. I think it is a very interesting job and when I was living in the camps I realised how important the media is. Often there was no electricity for the radio or internet. In times like this, you realise how much we all need the media to help us make decisions in our lives. I hope that, as a journalist, I can also help rebuild my country, and help people to understand each other better. That is my wish."

Muzoon was one of three finalists for the International Children's Peace Prize 2016

Sufiya Ahmed is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl, a story about a British girl's forced marriage.