The girl who represents more than half a million Palestine refugee students

UNRWA parliamentarians Aseel Soboh and Ahmad Baker speaking at Global Business Coalition for Education meeting at U.N. General Assembly. (Courtesy of Ozlem Eskiocak / UNRWA)

UNRWA parliamentarians Aseel Soboh and Ahmad Baker speaking at Global Business Coalition for Education meeting at U.N. General Assembly. (Courtesy of Ozlem Eskiocak / UNRWA)

14-year-old Palestine refugee Aseel Soboh advocates at the U.N. General Assembly for her peers’ right to learn.

“It’s a sad feeling knowing that the only thing you have is at risk,” said 14-year-old Palestine refugee Aseel Soboh, whose school is in danger of closing due to underfunding. “If the schools are closed, I won’t have anything in my life.”

Aseel currently lives in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. In August 2018, a major funding crisis put hundreds of schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) at risk of closing their doors — the current U.S. administration ended decades of financial support for UNRWA, leaving a $300 million funding gap.

As an UNRWA student parliamentarian, Aseel represents half a million Palestine refugee students who study in schools run by the U.N. agency. Aseel spoke before the 2018 U.N. General Assembly to tell world leaders about the challenges they face as refugee students and advocate for increased funding for Palestine refugee education.

“Nothing is more important to us than our education and in my case, making sure that the voices of girls are heard,” Aseel said while advocating in New York.

From left to right, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Aseel, Ahmad and UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl. (Courtesy of Ozlem Eskiocak / UNRWA)

From left to right, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Aseel, Ahmad and UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl. (Courtesy of Ozlem Eskiocak / UNRWA)

Life as Palestine refugees

The 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes — including Aseel’s grandparents. Today, UNRWA estimates that there are about 5.4 million Palestine refugees eligible for their services in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Aseel knows she is fortunate because her parents support her education — she says that her friends’ parents don’t value education and encourage their daughters to drop out and get married. However, Aseel and her family face challenges being displaced.

Aseel exploring New York City during the U.N. General Assembly. (Courtesy of Ozlem Eskiocak / UNRWA)

Aseel exploring New York City during the U.N. General Assembly. (Courtesy of Ozlem Eskiocak / UNRWA)

As refugees living in Lebanon, they are issued travel documents instead of passports. This means that it is difficult for Aseel to travel outside of Lebanon to meet with fellow UNRWA student parliamentarians who live in other countries.

Palestine refugees in Lebanon are also prohibited from working in 39 professions according to UNRWA. Aseel’s father was originally working as an engineer in Libya. But when he moved back to Lebanon, where Aseel was born, he had to switch his career to teaching because Palestine refugees are banned from being engineers in Lebanon. He is now earning a fraction of what he used to earn.

Aseel hopes to change perceptions around Palestine refugees through her advocacy. “I want all people to look at me not as a refugee, but as a normal person, a human being, living in this world, that I should have all my rights. And that I should be respected,” she said. “Everyone should respect me for who I am, not because of my skin color, where I come from or my religion. They should look at what I do.”

The joy of learning

Aseel is now in her fourth year in an UNRWA girls’ school in Beirut. Her studies keep her busy: “We study physics, chemistry, biology, Arabic, English and even human rights.”

At the moment Aseel is preparing for the grade nine Brevet exam in Lebanon, one of the two most important exams for students living in the country. Despite her hectic schedule, Aseel finds time for student parliament because she is passionate about helping others.

Aseel enjoys playing basketball as well as reading, writing and reciting poetry. She loves poems of all subjects, but her favourites are those related to Palestine. She won several poetry reading competitions at her school. “It’s a powerful feeling,” Aseel said of the feeling she has reading a poem. “I feel like I got all the world in front of me.”

There for each other

Meeting world leaders and attending international events is exciting, but what matters most to Aseel is the support she receives from her fellow Palestine refugees. Beaming, she reads aloud WhatsApp messages from her peers: “They were saying, ‘good luck. We are very proud of you. We all are. We all know that you are gonna do it. We don’t have any doubt. We love you.’”


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About the author

Bianca He is an editorial intern at Malala Fund. In her free time, she reads, hikes and craves for bubble tea.