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Malala Yousafzai Turns 20, Travels To Iraq


Malala has turned 20 years old. She shared that event with young Yazidi women in Iraq who are trying to overcome violence and discrimination. That's Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan. Five years ago, she was shot in the head by the Taliban because she spoke up for the right of girls to go to school. She survived and continued to campaign for girls education, becoming the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner ever. NPR's Jane Arraf traveled with her on her birthday in Iraq.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: Hello, everyone. My name is Malala Yousafzai, and I come from Pakistan.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Malala is sitting on a concrete floor. She's surrounded by a dozen or so Yazidi teenagers. The Yazidis are an ancient religious minority who are particularly targeted by ISIS. They killed Yazidi men, and they captured women and girls as sex slaves. Malala tells them a bit of her own story.

YOUSAFZAI: When I was about 10 or 11, in our region, the extremist-minded people called the Taliban - they banned girls' education, and I could not go to school at that time. So in response to that, I started speaking out. But then, like, later on, I was targeted by the extremists.

ARRAF: Malala was shot in the head. It's amazing that she lived. She's gone around the world to meet girls struggling in conflict zones and desperate to go to school.


ARRAF: A Kurdish interpreter translates. The girls and young women have been living here near the city of Dohuk in basically a construction site for the past three years. Dozens of families live in makeshift rooms in the unfinished building. There's no electricity. The girls try to study using the light from cellphones. They don't have money for a bus, so some of them walk an hour to school every day. They all have dreams.

NAJLA: I have a dream to be a journalist. I will fight everything and everyone who trying to stop me or do anything to stop any one of us. There is a lot of girls have a big dream, but they can't because they feel shamed in our society.


ARRAF: That Najla. She's 19. When there were no teachers, she gathered together younger kids and taught them to read and write. Malala tells the girls she's inspired by their bravery.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday, dear Malala. Happy birthday to you.

ARRAF: At a restaurant later, some of the teenagers sing "Happy Birthday" to Malala. Her father, Ziauddin, stands next to her as she cuts a birthday cake. It's topped with a book made of icing. One of the young Yazidi women, Hadia, tells me she's been inspired by a video she saw of Malala.

HADIA: She say that one teacher, one child, one book and one pen can change the world. And I believe that. I really believe that we can do anything. We can change the world if we have education.

ARRAF: That's the kind of message Malala tries to send to people in power. But in addition to winning a Nobel Peace Prize and traveling the world, she's also tried to be a normal high school student in England. She's lived there since she was shot. I sat down with her to talk about what's next for her.

YOUSAFZAI: Yeah, I just finished my schooling. And I also said goodbye to my teenage life. I have entered my 20s, and it is an interesting point because I'm just at the beginning stage. And I'm excited for university life.

ARRAF: She says she hardly ever thinks about the attack, although she wears a hearing aid and she still has some nerve damage in her face.

YOUSAFZAI: You can still sometimes see that, like, the smile isn't perfect. And it's still, like, crooked smile, or blinking has a bit of problem. But it has improved a lot. So I'm very happy for that. I feel normal. Like, I just never think about these things.

ARRAF: Malala won't know until August if she's been accepted at Oxford University, and she's nervous about it. She plans to study politics, policy and economics. But she'll continue to try to help girls and young women like the ones she met in Iraq.

YOUSAFZAI: I want to just stay focused on my mission. That is to see every girl get the right to education. And I think this is such an important thing that girls get their right to go to school, and we are losing the potential that these young girls have in this region, like Iraq.

ARRAF: She says she wants society to see girls and their courage and determination as a resource and not a threat. Jane Arraf, NPR News in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SOIL AND THE SUN'S "ARE YOU?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.