Written by:
Kitty Melrose

‘My story is millions of stories of children in need’

Read time:
7 minutes

‘My story is millions of stories of children in need’

After being forced to flee her home in Syria as a teenager, education activist Muzoon Almellehan started campaigning while living in a refugee camp in Jordan. She subsequently became the first refugee to be named a UNICEF ‘goodwill ambassador’ and recently published her first book Muzoon: A Syrian Refugee Speaks Out. Now living in the UK with her family, Muzoon speaks to journalist Kitty Melrose about her journey as a refugee, becoming an activist and why she wants to inspire other young people. 

What was your early life like in Syria?

I lived in the agricultural city of Da’ara with my family. My life started like any other child – it was filled with warmth, playing football with my brother and cousins, racing around on bikes, and going to school. I lived much of my life in and around our olive, almond and orange trees. I didn’t have any fears or doubts, just dreams. Then the war began. 

In the book you write that in your family, school meant everything…  

My dad, aunties and uncles were all teachers, and this had a big impact. It taught me that knowledge helps you have your own ideas and reach your goals. I saw the difference they made – building a stronger society through education. 

How did it feel when your family decided to flee Syria in 2013? 

I was 13 and didn’t want to leave, but there was fear, fighting and it became too dangerous for my father to work because of the intensity of the fighting and the checkpoints. It meant he no longer had a salary, and we didn’t feel safe. Dad said pack a bag with your most precious things, so I packed my nine school books because I believed they were my future. They were heavy. Now I feel it is unbelievable that I did that. 

‘I packed my nine school books because I believed they were my future’

How did you get involved in activism? 

We relocated to Zaatari Camp in Jordan. The camp was tough but when I realised it had a school, I felt relief. I saw many girls drop out to get married, who gave up on learning. I thought, there is a mission. I started trying to convince them to stay in school. 

Then, when I was 15 years old, UNICEF asked me to support a back-to-school campaign as a peer educator. A trainer told us that almost 80 per cent of the children in the camp were not going to school and the biggest challenges were early marriage, child labour and the war. 

For three years, I went tent-to-tent telling parents, children, anyone: we need an educated generation to rebuild Syria. I talked to the media and delegations to the camp about the challenges we faced and how we needed help to make sure every child was educated. 

What has been your experience of living in the UK? 

In 2015, I came to Newcastle with my family and studied at school and Newcastle University. I consider it my second home. I am a British citizen and that makes me proud. I studied international politics and a master’s in international relations, conflict and security. 

[But] I didn’t stop my activism. I did some activities with the Malala Fund in the UK. I met Malala when I was in the camp and we’re in touch all the time. In 2017, UNICEF appointed me as a goodwill ambassador to talk about refugee children’s rights, including their right to an education. I’ve been on field visits to Chad, Mali and back to Zaatari, where I was living. The children I meet are determined to learn. In Africa, I met women and children who had fled from Boko Haram, the extremist group in Nigeria, but they are ready once the opportunity is there. I try to deliver their messages to world leaders and raise awareness. 

‘“Refugee” is just a title. It could happen to anyone’

Why did you write your book?

I wanted to inspire every young person to believe in themselves and to never give up. To realise that life will get better. I wanted to show that yes, in life we can go through challenges. We don’t have a choice. But it is us who can determine our future. The responsibility to use our voice is on all of us. My story is millions of stories of children in need. 

What has your own journey as a refugee taught you? 

That ‘refugee’ is just a title. It could happen to anyone... Before the war, I knew about refugees from neighbouring countries who had come to find safety in Syria, but I’d never heard of Syrian refugees. People assume you are weak or hopeless but we still carry hope for a better future and to have our rights. We must never allow difficult circumstances imposed on us to defeat us. I’m a grateful and optimistic person so, for me, I know sadness has an expiry time. 

You haven’t been back to Syria for 10 years now – what do you miss? 

Mostly my grandmother, Jadati. She’s in her 80s and amazes us with her strength. Also, sitting in the shadows of our trees drinking tea and chatting on the rooftop with my family, especially in spring time. 

What do you say to people who tell us the Syrian revolution is over? 

I say no, because a revolution is an idea and ideas live forever. Syrian people didn’t want destruction. Their ideas were clear: they wanted a better life, peace, security, their basic and fundamental rights. I believe Syria will be a good place again one day. It will take time, but that’s my hope. 

Muzoon: A Syrian Refugee Speaks Out by Muzoon Almellehan with Wendy Pearlman is out now. 

This is an expanded version of an article that was originally published in the winter 2023 issue of Amnesty Magazine, which is produced by Amnesty International UK

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

Photo: Muzoon Almellehan takes part in a maths class with 10-year-old Shahed at a UNICEF-supported centre in East Amman, Jordan, August 2022 © UNICEF/UN0696284/Matas

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