People

Malala Yousafzai on the resilience and strength of refugees around the world

Malala Yousafzai has been in the public eye since she was 12. Now she wants the world to listen to other girls like her.

Everybody knows about Malala. Everybody knows that she campaigned for girls’ education in Pakistan and, when she was sitting on a school bus aged 14, she was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out. In 2014, she became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize and her memoir, I Am Malala, has sold almost two million copies worldwide.

But Malala, as she is quick to remind us, is just a girl with a story. She leaves her clothes strewn over her bedroom floor. She starts her university essays at 11pm the night before they’re due (“It’s something that’s a challenge for any college student!” she tells Stylist). She bickers with her two brothers.

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In Malala’s view, there are lots of girls just like her. Smart girls. Smiling girls. Girls with homes and families who like chicken and rice for dinner. Girls who have had everything they know and love ripped away because of circumstances they can’t control. She’s had to leave her childhood home in Pakistan’s Swat Valley twice. Once when the military moved in to try to rid the valley of the Taliban in 2009, and again in 2012 when she was shot and airlifted to Britain for life-saving medical treatment. 

Her new book, We Are Displaced, gives a voice to eight other young women and their experiences of being refugees. Even when she couldn’t meet them in person, she was still determined to share their stories. Like Adija, who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, who was included because Malala thought the plight of the persecuted Rohingya people should be highlighted. 

“It is time that other people hear from them,” she says. “Their stories are moving, empowering and astonishing and they are giving this message of strength and bravery.” 

Malala Yousafzai

Two books and a Nobel peace prize - and she’s just getting started

Malala, who is often called brave herself, is very small in person, scraping in at just 5ft. The top of her salwar kameez has a tropical plant print and her lilac headscarf slides down her hair when she gets animated. She’s now 21 and studying at Oxford for a degree in politics, philosophy and economics (aka PPE, the course of choice for a disproportionate number of politicians, journalists and high-ranking civil servants). Malala already speaks like a politician – one of the good ones who has conviction and is most passionate talking about changing the world.

The circumstances of Malala’s life turned her into an activist. She lost her home, her friends and the ease of speaking Pashto, her native language. Although she’s been feted internationally, she’s also faced criticism in her own country and there are persistent conspiracy theories that her shooting was faked or staged for attention or financial gain. But Malala has held her head up, embraced the role thrust upon her and learned how to wield her fame, shining the light on all of those other girls who are just like her. 

During Stylist’s photo shoot, she poses with a globe. “Look at the world, Malala!” says the photographer. It seems a pointless instruction: she’s been looking at the world for years. 

You’ve always campaigned for girls’ education and now you’re at university. How are you finding it?

Great! I’m at Lady Margaret Hall. It’s an all-women’s college and was the first one at Oxford, so it has historical significance. And it’s also the college where Benazir Bhutto studied.

Does that mean something to you, having had Bhutto study there as well?

Yes, in many ways, because she was the first female prime minister of Pakistan. She was the first female leader in the Muslim world. I think in that sense she was giving a message to women across the world that they can be prime ministers and presidents. She did quite a bit of work for women in parliament in Pakistan. She has been a role model for many. 

What made you want to highlight other girls with similar experiences to you?

I met Muzoon when I first visited a refugee camp in 2013. It was in Jordan, the Za’atari camp [the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp]. She was one of the first refugees I met and her story was so inspiring – this young girl was so brave and she was so hopeful about the future, even though she had left her home country in such a difficult situation.

In the book she comes across as someone who has an enormous amount of energy.

Oh, 100%. Yes. I could just keep on listening to her for the whole day.

You didn’t share a common language when you met, did you?

No. She spoke in Syrian [Levantine] Arabic and I was speaking in English, even though that’s not my mother tongue. We were trying to communicate. There was something between us, we could just connect. It was just so beautiful, being with her and seeing her smile. And there was a translator, but oftentimes we would think, ‘We don’t need the translator! We understand each other.’ And I think that’s been the case with all the refugees I have met. Even if you don’t understand the language or the culture… there’s a way to connect. 

Fewer than 300 people crossed the English Channel to enter Britain last year, but it’s often presented as a crisis. How does the coverage of refugee issues make you feel?

It does disappoint me. Refugees are portrayed in such a negative way and they are usually unwelcome. And you see that response mostly from the so-called developed countries and the western democracies. But these are not the countries that see most of the refugees. Most of the refugees are actually in the developing countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan.

I was displaced twice. The first time was internal displacement in Pakistan for three months: a very difficult time because I still remember the firing and the Taliban on the roads with their big guns. Long queues of people. Children with no shoes. Millions of people just walking out of the valley with no idea where they were going to go.

I wanted to write We Are Displaced because we hear so much about refugees and immigrants, but we do not hear from them. Especially from young girls and women. I have met some of these amazing refugee girls and I have heard their stories from them. We hear about refugees in numbers and figures. Or they are made into symbols; this external group, this foreign kind of group. We never get to hear the human side of it. 

“Refugees are portrayed in such a negative way and they are usually unwelcome”

The common denominator from every story in We Are Displaced is the sense of how fragile normality is, that anything could happen anywhere. Would you agree?

100%. People have become refugees throughout history. Look at the number of people displaced by the Second World War. And it’s happening everywhere in the world. But I think also the world is changing and there’s development and progress and more sensitivity around these issues.

There is still an idea that refugees should be full of gratitude just for being able to stay in a safe place. How would you respond to that?

Think of all that happens to refugees… Firstly, they lose their peace. Secondly, they lose their homes. Then they have to take this dangerous journey and then finally they are somewhere safe. But then they receive a hostile or negative attitude. That is really disappointing because people make it seem like it is the refugees’ fault in some way, their fault that they are in a different country. People do not understand that leaving your home is never your first choice. It is always your last choice. And sometimes it is the only choice that you have. 

Raising their voices

Two of the women who tell their stories in We Are Displaced speak to Stylist about how they came to be in the book and what they are doing now.

Marie-Claire

Marie-Claire is training to be a nurse in America

Marie-Claire, 21, is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her family fled war to Zambia, where they were targeted because they were refugees and Marie-Claire’s mother was murdered. She now lives in the United States.

“Malala met me when she first came to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is where I’m located. I’d been invited to speak on a panel with her. At the time, I didn’t know a lot about her. I was amazed and surprised by what I saw from other people when she spoke; the love and the appreciation on their faces.

Afterwards, we were able to go and talk and I told her my story. Then, sometime later, I received a call asking if I wanted to go and speak at the United Nations. That was amazing, to finally share my story with the most important people in the world.

I was born during war in the Congo. We would sleep in the bush for safety, even though there were animals and snakes there. We were eating from the trees. It’s only by God’s grace we were able to survive and get to Zambia. My mother had always prayed, saying, ‘When I see smiles on my children’s faces, I can die.’ 

In Zambia, I was insulted and called names by other school children. We were living in one room. My parents used to sell potatoes and other little things just to try to make a living. One night they had a little more than expected, so my mother said, ‘Oh my kids, I’m going to buy chicken tomorrow.’ Then some people knocked on the door. We didn’t have money, so I think they wanted a life instead. My mother cried and begged them to take her instead of us. They did exactly that. They also stabbed my father, about seven or eight knives in his head. He survived, he’s fine now, but I believe my mother died thinking my father was dead, too. They took away my lovely mum’s life and that was the worst, worst moment. We tried to get the police involved, but there was not much that they could do because we were refugees and didn’t have the right documentation.

These stories are not what most people experience, not in Europe and the United States. I thought if I could show the picture of what this life is like, then it might give them the sense and the strength to help. 

My mother always wanted me to get an education and I wish she could have been there when I graduated high school in America. I’m training to be a nurse now. I love it. I want to see every patient smile.” 

Zaynab has dreams of returning to Yemen

Zeynab, 20, grew up in Yemen. As the conflict there escalated, she and her younger sister, Sabrine, left for Egypt. After two years, Zeynab was granted a visa to enter the United States. Sabrine was not, and now lives in a European refugee camp. 

“When I was asked to speak at the United Nations by Malala, who had heard my story, I was so overwhelmed and excited. I hadn’t spoken in front of people before, except for at my high school graduation. It was my chance to speak up, to tell people what had happened to me. A chance to say that refugees are not just weak people who need help. We are strong and we want to rebuild.

When I left Yemen for Egypt, I didn’t really speak to anyone. Not for the whole two years I was there. If people asked why I was in Egypt I said I was visiting. Then, for the first year in America, I still didn’t want to share the details. Would I get in trouble? Would the government in my country come after me?

But Yemen felt like a forgotten war. It is one of the largest humanitarian crises in decades, but for most people it is a non- existent country. I had heard and felt bombs falling on the houses around me. My grandfather and uncles are still there, but there are no resources, so little food. But they feel there is more dignity in staying and suffering than in being a refugee. 

I left my life there. We were not rich people, but the love was very important. Even my sister and I were separated in Egypt. I came to the United States, but she did not get a visa and made a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. She’s in Belgium now, but I haven’t been able to see her for several years. She has no papers and, although I can stay here, I’m not a US citizen. After President Trump introduced the Muslim travel ban, I am scared of leaving the country and not being able to come back.

I am at university now, at St Catherine’s, which is an all-women college in Minnesota. I am studying political science, international relations and philosophy, so in four years I should be graduating with three degrees.

The younger generation of Yemeni people give me hope. When I lived there, I was part of a group of young people. We would go and clean litter from neighbourhoods or from the beach. We helped Somali refugees. In America, you would put this on a CV and say it showed teamwork or leadership skills, but there we just did it. I’d love to go back and help my country grow again.” 

We Are Displaced by Malala Yousafzai (£16.99, Weidenfeld and Nicolson) is out now

Photography: Tom Van Schelven

Other photography: Malala Fund staff, Tess Thomas

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