Muzoon Almellehan awarded German peace prize

"If you have an education, no-one can take it away from you"

Education is the key to the future. Muzoon Almellehan has known this since she was 14 years old. But she lives in a Jordanian refugee camp. And since then she has been fighting for better education for children in crisis zones. By Bettina Baumann

Just a few years ago, when she was 14 years old, bombs started to fall on Muzoon Almellehan's hometown of Daraa, in south-western Syria. Civil war was intensifying, and her parents saw escape as the only alternative. They left the country with their four children in 2013. They landed in Jordan – in Za'atari, the second-largest refugee camp in the world.

Although her father has asked her to pack only the bare necessities, Muzoon carried a suitcase full of books with her. "Even as a child, I knew that education was the key to my future, so when I fled Syria, the only belongings I took with me were my school books," the now 21-year-old explained to UNICEF in June 2017.

Despite her exceptional situation, Almellehan was still hungry to learn. But education was not a priority for most people in the camp, where a feeling of hopelessness prevailed, so they did not participate in the educational opportunities offered. Almellehan went from tent to tent, trying to convince parents and children of the importance of school. "If you have an education, no-one take it away from you," she said again and again.

Access to education in crisis zones

Those were the seeds of Almellehan's commitment to achieving better access to education in crisis zones. In 2017 she was appointed UNICEF goodwill ambassador — the youngest ever, at 19, and the first with official refugee status.

In this capacity, Almellehan, who now lives in Britain, has returned to Za'atari, met girls in Chad who fled from Boko Haram and spoken to senior political representatives at the G20 summit in Hamburg about the millions of children forced to flee their homes as a result of conflicts, wars or natural disasters. Time magazine named her one of the 30 most influential teenagers in the world in 2017.

Almellehan is proud of her work as a UNICEF ambassador: "As a refugee, I saw what happens when children are forced into early marriage or manual labour" she said. "They lose out on education and they lose out on possibilities for the future," she added. "This is why I am proud to work with UNICEF to help give these children a voice and enable them to go to school."

Tireless battle

Last Sunday, 9 February, Germany honoured Almellehan's commitment with the Dresden Peace Prize. The prize association praised her extraordinary courage and commitment. "In the face of great resistance, she has stood up for children and young people, and she continues to fight for their educational opportunities," Beate Spiegel of the Klaus Tschira Foundation, which sponsors the €10,000 award.

"Education is perhaps the greatest good that can be given to young people who have had to flee. It paves the way for regaining dignity and meaning after the trauma of expulsion," 

Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the 2019 prizewinner, gave the laudatory speech. The woman is known as the "Napalm Girl" thanks to a 1972 photo taken during the Vietnam War that shows her as a child, naked and screaming after a napalm attack on her village. The image contributed to a change in attitude among Americans toward the war.

The International Peace Prize "Dresden Prize", as it is officially known, was awarded in 2020 for the 11th time. The ceremony was held in the Dresden Semperoper. Previous laureates include former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Argentine-born pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim and the U.S. war photographer James Nachtwey.

Bettina Baumann

© Deutsche Welle 2020

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