For Malala, Now 20, Birthdays Are Best Spent With Girls Who Dream Big
Malala Yousafzai walks hand-in-hand with her father down a dirt road in northern Iraq. The youngest Nobel laureate has just turned 20. But in some ways, she is still the teenager from Pakistan propelled onto a world stage after being shot for advocating the right of girls to go to school.
Her birthday falls on July 12, and she says she has chosen to spend it each year in a country where girls are struggling to get an education. When she turned 18, she opened a school for refugees in Syria. At 19, she went to Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp, then the world's largest. This year, for her 20th, she traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to meet meet displaced Iraqis and Yazidis – members of an ancient religious minority targeted by ISIS.
Malala, as she is universally known, started a blog when she was barely 12, speaking out about life under the Taliban. They'd banned girls from going to school in northern Pakistan's Swat valley, where she is from. Three years later, at 15, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman as she was riding home from school with her friends, a few of whom were also shot.
She wasn't expected to live. But after being airlifted to England for treatment, she made a remarkable recovery. For the past three years, she's been a high school student in the city of Birmingham, where her family — she, her mother, father and two younger brothers — have settled.
After overcoming the initial culture shock, Malala seems to have thrived.
"At school, when the girls would be chatting and gossiping, the jokes they would say would be different compared to what I would consider jokes in my school," she tells me in an interview in the Kurdish capital Erbil. "You want to engage with other girls. You want to make sure you are present and communicate with people. So in the beginning, it was hard, but then I got used to it and made lots of friends."
After surgery to repair some of the nerve damage she'd suffered — and with the help of a hearing aid — she says she rarely thinks about the attack now.
"You can still sometimes see the smile isn't perfect – like a crooked smile – and blinking is a problem, but it has improved a lot," she says. "If someone asks me, I have to think, 'Yeah, there are a few things, but yeah, I feel normal.' "
She says spending time with her school friends in England, like seeing movies or playing mini-golf has also helped her feel normal.
But she is attuned to those who might still be suffering. In 2014, thousands of Yazidi girls and women were kidnapped and bought and sold as sex slaves for ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. Three years later, those who managed to flee when ISIS took over their villages are still living in camps or even on construction sites. Many are still missing family members.
At what is euphemistically called an "informal settlement" near the city of Dohuk, dozens of Yazidi families live in an unfinished apartment building with no electricity, proper rooms or running water. They don't have money for transportation or school supplies.
Malala, wearing a long tunic over skinny jeans and her hair loosely covered with a gauzy, green scarf, sits on a thin mattress on a concrete floor to talk to some of the teenage girls.
Her invitation to tell her about themselves evokes a stream of passionate responses. All of the Yazidi girls have struggled to educate themselves – sometimes teaching each other when there were no schools to go to.
The young women tell her of their dreams of becoming doctors, teachers, writers — dreams that poverty, hardship and the social pressure of a society that devalues girls can't extinguish.
One of the Yazidi women, Najla, has dyed the ends of her tinted blonde hair turquoise blue. The 19-year-old describes teaching younger children in the settlement to read and write. When her parents insisted she get married at 15 instead of going to school, she ran away from home in her wedding dress, taking off her heels so she could run.
"My father actually didn't talk to me for one year. I said, 'It's OK, I have time,' " she says.
She stayed away for a month before she agreed with her mother to come home. The following year, ISIS rolled into Iraq and took over Yazidi villages. Nalja and her family along with tens of thousands of other Yazidis fled to Sinjar mountain and then escaped to Syria and back into Iraq.
Malala listens with rapt attention. Passionate when she is speaking to the world, she sometimes becomes shy when in a small group. When the conversation falters, her exuberant father Ziauddin Yousafzai steps in to fill the gaps.
"I have never seen such inspiring, such brave girls in my life," he tells the Yazidi teenagers. "Trust me, you are so inspiring."
As in Pakistan, he says, tragedy sometimes brings opportunity. After the Taliban, he tells them girls were allowed to go to school and governments focused more on creating equality for women in Pakistan.
Malala says her father is one of the sources of her own inspiration. He started a chain of secular schools back in Pakistan — an unlikely path for the son of a religious scholar.
Yousafzai says he was radicalized as a teenager.
"Everything was Islamisized and militarized," he says. "Youth like me became extremists. I used to pray to God after every prayer — let there be a fight between Muslims and infidels."
He says the influence of his father, a broad-minded religious thinker, and that of progressive political parties steered him away from radicalism to a different path and into secular education.
"Modern education transformed me," he says. Bullied as a child because of his dark skin and a stammer, he says he decided to fight for equality for everyone. Yousafzai calls it "positive revenge."
Malala says her mother, Toor Pekai, had a more difficult transition in England than she and her father, who speak fluent English. A religious Muslim, her mother was shocked at first by the revealing clothing she saw women wearing and other aspects of life in England. Malala says it's easier now that her mother is learning English.
"She brings her homework to me and I help her," Malala says. "It's kind of the opposite that happens in a typical family – that is, the mother helps her daughter. But here, the daughter helps the mother to learn and helps in her homework."
Malala enjoyed her final day as a teenager at an amusement park in Erbil with Kurdish, Iraqi and Yazidi girls. Now that she's graduated from high school, she expects this fall to move away from home, start university and plunge into adult life.
She wants to study at Oxford but doesn't yet know the results of exams that will determine whether she can. It's hard to imagine that the youngest Nobel laureate would not be accepted to the university of her choice, but Malala is jittery.
"I'm waiting to hear - I'm quite nervous, quite scared," she says.
She goes so far as to describe her A-levels, final exams needed for entrance to university, as "the hardest part" of her life. She plans to study politics, philosophy and economics – a traditional route for many British-educated diplomats and senior officials.
After university, she says, she will continue her advocacy for girls' education – to try to make sure that every girl gets the right to go to school.
"We should consider them as an asset, as a resource," she says.
Educating girls "can make the country more productive, it can protect them from any kind of violence. It can help the economy... There are countless benefits but unfortunately, some people in society do not understand that." She wants to make sure they do.