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Malala Fund Tries To Help Educate Child Refugees From Syria


One of the most powerful advocates for children's education is a Pakistani girl who nearly died at the hands of the Taliban, simply because she insisted on going to school. And this week, Malala Yousafzai turned her attention to the plight of children forced to leave school as they fled the war in Syria.

We reached her at the largest refugee camp in Jordan, along the border with Syria, where more than 100,000 Syrians are now crowded together. Malala and the head of her Malala Fund, Shiza Shahid, were there to raise money to pay for schools and teachers at Zaatari camp.

When they joined us via Skype, Malala told of seeing families arriving with almost nothing.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: When I came here, and when I went to the Jordanian-Syrian border, and when I saw children, they had no shoes and they were wearing dirty clothes and they had a long walk in the desert for, like, 10 and 15 hours. I just felt something in my heart that what is their sin, what have they done that they have to migrate, why are these innocent children suffering from such hard situation, why are they deprived of school, why are they deprived of peaceful environment?

MONTAGNE: Will, I'd like to put to Shiza Shahid one question: you've also been meeting these children. Is there a story that struck you as suggestive of what many of them are going through?

SHIZA SHAHID: I'll tell you a story. Yesterday, we were at the Syrian-Jordanian border where refugees cross over. And you don't realize what that means 'til you see it. They literally walk across miles of barren desert with nothing in their hand, half of their family left behind in Syria, fighting or dead. And so as I watched that, I approached this boy - he was about three years old and had the most beautiful green eyes and I started to play with him. And his mother turned to me apologetically and said I bathed him before he left but the desert was very dusty. And in those words, I realized how deeply she was clinging on to, not just hope, but her dignity as a human being, having left everything behind. She wanted me to know that her child wasn't dirty because she didn't know how to keep him clean, though, because the desert was dusty. And that was incredibly moving to me. Giving these people an education will give them back that dignity.

MONTAGNE: Are there schools in the camp at all, Jordan's largest camp?

SHAHID: Yes, there are three schools and there's about 50,000 children here.

MONTAGNE: Three schools serving 50,000 children.


YOUSAFZAI: Only three schools. And what happens, I saw so many boys and they were doing some child labor. They were collecting some stones. The children are contributing to their family through child labor. They have to work, they have to earn something for their family, for their food, for their basic needs, such as water.

SHAHID: Renee, if I may pitch in, you know, there's a very high concentration of female-led households amongst the Syrian refugees because so many of the men are at war or have been killed in the fighting. And so a lot of children are having to bear the burdens that their fathers used to. And in addition they've had to leave behind all their possessions, which is increasing the incidences of child labor, which Malala refers to.

MONTAGNE: I'm wondering, in the middle of this war - and it's a very vicious war - these kids who are among the refugees, they need shelter, they need food, but tell us how important is it for a child to have a school to go to?

YOUSAFZAI: A child learns every day in something new. But if he is living in an environment where he sees violence, where he sees bad people, it has a very bad influence on their child. But if he's in a different environment, in a healthy environment, in an environment where he can learn, he's going to school, he has teachers, he is learning how to work in groups and how to work in collaboration with each other, so then it has a good impact on the child's future.

MONTAGNE: Malala, do these children know you when they meet you? Do they know your story?

YOUSAFZAI: I think most of these children does not know who I am, but they know me as Malala, a girl, their friend. They do not know me as, like, a celebrity, kind of god, but they just know me from their heart. And they have been my friend. And they're so nice to me. They love me and I like that. They know me as Malala, as a girl.

MONTAGNE: Well, Shiza Shahid and Malala Yousafzai, thank you both, very much, for joining us.

SHAHID: Thank you so much, Renee.

YOUSAFZAI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: They spoke to us from the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan across the border from Syria.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.