BEIRUT: Malala Yousafzai, the 18-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Pakistan, visited the Bekaa Valley Sunday to open a school for Syrian girls who have been cut off from their education by the ongoing war in their country.
At the ceremony, Yousafzai said Lebanese leaders and the world had “failed” the Syrian children.
“On this day, I have a message for the leaders of this country, this region and the world – you are failing the Syrian people, especially Syria’s children. This is a heartbreaking tragedy – the world’s worst refugee crisis in decades,” she said.
The Malala Yousafzai All-Girls School will accept more than 200 students between the ages of 14 and 18, and will gear the curriculum to provide them with baccalaureate and vocational decrees.
The new school is part of a general initiative by the Kayani Foundation, a Lebanese NGO, to support displaced Syrian children in Lebanon. Kayani was established in 2013 to provide food, water, sanitation and essential services to informal Syrian refugee camps in the Bekaa. The NGO, founded by Noura Jumblatt, works with the Lebanese ministries and the U.N. to build and operate schools.
At the ceremony, Yousafzai, who at 15 years old was targeted by a Taliban assassination attempt for her school advocacy in Pakistan, drew attention to children whose classes have been interrupted by war.
“I am here on behalf of the 28 million children who are kept from the classroom because of armed conflict,” she said.
Over 410,000 Syrian refugees registered with the U.N. live in the Bekaa Valley, and over half are children under 18. The United Nations said Thursday the total number of Syrian refugees had exceeded 4 million, with another 7.6 million displaced within Syria itself. The UNHCR has described the refugee crisis as the worst humanitarian disaster it has faced in a quarter century.
Yousafzai’s foundation, the Malala Fund, has called on world leaders to invest an additional $39 billion in global education, to guarantee 12 years of free education to every boy and girl.
Yousafzai, who grew up in Taliban-controlled northwest Pakistan, has become a leading advocate for educating girls around the world. As a young girl, at just 11 years old, she drew attention through a blog on the BBC highlighting the Taliban’s attempts to stamp out girls’ education in her home province.
Battles between Pakistani security forces and the Taliban displaced Yousafzai’s family, and the militant group blew up schools, forced girl students to wear burkas and sometimes banned girls from attending school altogether.
Her advocacy through the BBC and the New York Times began to attract international attention, and she and her father, a school owner and an activist himself, began to receive death threats regularly. In 2012, a Taliban gunman boarded her school bus, singled her out, and shot her in the head.
The assassination attempt attracted global attention, and Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin, established the Malala Fund to raise funds and advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. Yousafzai spoke in front of the United Nations General Assembly in 2013 and met with numerous leaders, including President Barack Obama, whom she petitioned to stop American drone strikes on Pakistan. In 2014, the Malala Fund donated $50,000 to UNRWA to help rebuild Gaza schools destroyed by Israel in its summer offensive. Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year.
The Malala Fund Sunday announced a $250,000 grant to support girls’ school programming in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp, where over 5,000 displaced Syrian girls live.
The day also marked Yousafzai’s 18th birthday. “I am honored to mark my 18th birthday with the brave and inspiring girls of Syria,” she said at the Malala Yousafzai School. Wiping her tears, she blew out her birthday cake candles with schoolgirls. She was joined by her father at the ceremony.
During her short stay in Lebanon, Yousafzai met with Prime Minister Tammam Salam and his wife Lama.