Eighteen-year-old Muzoon Almellehan remembers her remarkably normal life before the Syrian civil war: "The people did their normal daily activities like go to school and work. They prepared for their future. They were not worried about anything in their lives," she said over Skype. "They were working toward their goals."
Almellehan's own dream was to study hard enough to be able to go to a university in Damascus. "Syria has a good system of education," she said, adding that she was looking forward to preparing for her exams with her friends.
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But in 2013, as it became increasingly dangerous to stay in the country, she and her family fled to Jordan. When she left her hometown of Daraa, one of her main concerns was that she wasn't going to be able to continue going to school at the Za'atari refugee camp. Almellehan's father, Rakan, was an elementary school teacher in Syria, and she says she has always believed in the value of learning.
"When I arrived at the camp it was a strange place for me. It was my first time leaving Syria, and I didn't know the people there, so it was a bit difficult at the beginning," she said. "But, day by day, it was easier to adjust there and to live," especially when she found out that there were schools provided by UNICEF and other human rights organizations at the camp.
She soon realized, however, that none of the other children were as enthusiastic about going to school as she was, and many girls in her class were dropping out to get married. The Syrian civil war has lead to the rise of child marriage as daily life has become uncertain and dangerous; before the war, it was not as common for Syria girls to get married so young. According to a UNICEF report about child marriage in Jordan, Syrian girls comprised just 0.5 percent of the child marriages in the country in 2011, and by 2013 the number had jumped to 7.6 percent, which the report characterizes as "exponential" and "a sharp rise."
Almellehan noticed that the parents of young girls seemed to think that marrying their daughters off would secure their future. In response, she launched a one-woman campaign to convince her classmates and their parents that getting an education was the most important thing they could do. "If I found any girl who thought education was not important I would speak with her and encourage her," she said. "I told many girls in my classroom, 'You can do many things, but first you need to get an education.' And I told parents, 'You know life is tough without education so you must encourage your children to be educated people. We cannot be strong people without our education.' Anytime and anyplace, I was encouraging people."
When asked where her activist spirit came from, she replied, "In my heart there is an energy that gives me the strength to encourage myself and other people to continue their education."
After Almellehan and her family were forced to move to another refugee camp, Azraq, they finally settled in the UK in 2015 as part of the first wave of refugees to be accepted into the country. Now she is going to school in Newcastle, studying for the first year of her A-levels. In two years, she says excitedly, she can apply to go to college. She wants to study journalism.
But even though she's been focused on school, that as not stopped her from continuing her activist mission and fighting for the future of the families that are still displaced. She's now working with Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai as a Malala Fund girl advocate. The two first met when Yousafzai toured the Za'atari camp in 2014, and quickly struck up a friendship. Earlier this year, they wrote a joint article in the Guardian calling on rich countries to step up and fund education initiatives for Syrian children refugees.
"While leaders struggle to find a political solution to the crisis, the best hope for Syria's future is right here, waiting on the school steps. Five years into the conflict, young refugees stand ready to rebuild and reclaim the future for themselves and for Syria," they wrote. "Education is the most important investment we can make in Syria's children, the country's future, and stability in the region."
Over Skype, Alemllehan emphasized that this still holds true. "We need all the children to be educated people," she said. "If we lose these children and they don't continue their education, we cannot rebuild Syria."