Geneva, Switzerland – Muzoon Almellehan would be an ordinary Syrian girl from Deraa, south of Damascus, dreaming of a future as a journalist, if war hadn’t forced her family of six to flee her home country in 2013.
But Muzoon, 20, is no ordinary girl. For the past five years, living as a refugee, she spearheaded a campaign to promote the right of refugee children to an education. She kicked her mission off at the age of 14 in a refugee camp in Jordan, after several of her schoolmates dropped out of school to be married off as child brides.
“When we fled Syria, we had to leave everything behind. My father told me to take only what I needed the most. I took my books, they were my only hope,” Muzoon told Al Jazeera.
“I thought: Wherever we go, what will happen if I cannot go to school? My books were the only thing that could give me a future.”
Her pale, inquisitive face, encircled by a hijab, shows a calm determination as she steps into the meeting room. She is in Geneva to speak about the right of refugee children to choose and shape their future, a right only education can grant, she said.
“Education is the only thing that matters. It is the only thing that can empower us and change our condition. Without education we cannot have any future,” Muzoon said.
“We need to be educated if we want to rebuild our country. We owe it to Syria.”
A short leather jacket and jeans betray a youth cut abruptly short for a girl who today represents more than five million Syrian children who have been displaced over seven years of conflict. Like many of them, Muzoon has witnessed too much, too early for her age.
“When you lose everything, from your beloved ones to your home, it is difficult to think that education matters. But it does. Especially for us girls who are the most vulnerable of all.”
40 percent out of school
According to the UN agencies, some 43 percent of Syrian refugee children in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq are out of school.
Poverty and dwindling financial means are making it almost impossible for families to get by in these countries. In a recent study conducted by UNICEF Jordan, more than 85 percent of refugees outside the camps – in host communities – live in poverty, struggling to meet their basic needs, including providing education for their children.
But it is difficult to envisage an improvement in the life and prospects of Syrian refugee children. As the war becomes further protracted, the prospect of returning to a normal life for the 2.6 million Syrians in neighbouring countries and the 2.8 million internally displaced remains unrealistic. An entire generation of Syrians has apparently lost the opportunity to receive an education because of the war.
“There has been a total disregard for the protection of children by all sides in this conflict,” said Christophe Boulierac, UNICEF spokesperson, on Tuesday. “We keep calling upon all the parties in the conflict to do what they must to protect children as per the international law.”
The first two months of this year have been especially bloody for children in Syria. UNICEF received reports of more than 1,000 children killed and seriously wounded since the year began. In 2017 alone, UNICEF registered 1,271 verified child casualties in Syria, of which 361 were injuries and 910 deaths.
Some 961 children were recruited in combat.
Meanwhile, in refugee host countries nearly 10,000 Syrian refugee children are either unaccompanied or separated from their families. Many of these children are vulnerable to exploitation and child labour, because of a lack of legal documentation.
Left without any hope, as Syrians find themselves displaced multiple times, many families marry off their daughters as child brides to protect them from being kidnapped and abused, or to save them from poverty and starvation. Child marriage was uncommon in Syria before the war started, Muzoon said.
“I remember a 17-year-old girl, who came to tell me that she was to marry a man older than her father. I told her to convince her parents that an education would have given her a better future than a husband,” she recalled. “I told her to be brave. She didn’t get married in the end and went back to school.”
Muzoon campaigned relentlessly for three years in the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan, where her family had fled to from Deraa after their neighbourhood was caught in the middle of clashes between government forces and the Free Syrian Army.
“In Syria, we had a normal, happy life. We had everything. Suddenly we found ourselves in a refugee camp. I hated it.”
‘Nobody would tell us to go to school’
Life in the camp was difficult, recalled Muzoon. Her family had to squeeze into a small tent with no running water or electricity. But she “didn’t want to be negative”, she said, so she looked for a school in order not to miss ninth grade.
“Nobody would tell us to go to school. It was totally voluntary, so many kids were not going or dropped out. So I started visiting the tents of the camps to publicise the school and encouraging children to join.”
She was often scorned and sent away by parents and children alike, who thought marriage was their only way out of poverty.
“I knew how they felt, the horror and pain they had gone through, the events they witnessed are something they couldn’t forget. For many of them education seemed an irrelevant thing.”
But many children went back to school thanks to her encouragement. UNICEF supported Muzoon in her mission and made her the agency’s youngest goodwill ambassador last year.
Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, has called on those fighting inside Syria and all those who have influence over them to put their arms down and stop the war on children.
“The children of Syria have been waiting for way too long. The world has failed the children of Syria so many times, it cannot keep failing them. History will judge us all if we do,” Cappelaere said.