'I know how it feels to be afraid in your school — and I don’t want any other girl to know that feeling.'
Refugee and education activist Zaynab Abdi calls on leaders to sign the Safe Schools Declaration and protect students from violence.
My name is Zaynab Abdi. I am a refugee from Yemen. I didn’t want to flee my country. I didn’t want to be out of school for two years. But for girls living in conflict, we don’t have a choice.
My life in Yemen before the revolution was wonderful. I lived with my sister and our grandmother in a simple neighborhood. We were happy there. The whole community was close. I loved that every afternoon, people would come to our house to talk and watch movies.
But in 2011, everything changed. The revolution began and violence spread around the country. We heard stories of innocent people being killed — children shot coming home from school. Suddenly my education — and my future — were under attack.
I remember one day in class, I overheard two teachers talking about a bomb threat. The bomb threat was at our school. I thought, “This is it. We are all going to die!” The police were able to deactivate the bomb before it blew up, but I will never forget sitting in my classroom, wondering if my life was about to end.
At that point, many children began staying home out of fear. Two of my friends’ parents forced them to leave school at the ages of 14 and 15 so that they could marry rich men and help support the rest of the family. They call it early marriage. I call it an early death.
I was so mad that this was happening to me and my friends. My grandmother — who didn’t finish school and got married at the age of 14 — understood my pain. She encouraged me to stay in school so I could achieve all the great dreams that she had for me — and the great dreams that I had for myself.
But it wasn’t easy going to school in the middle of the conflict. There was no electricity at night so I had to do my homework in the moonlight. Schools kept being bombed. Many schools had to close, including mine. My sister and I were forced to stay at home for a year.
When I fled Yemen and arrived in Egypt, I witnessed more violence. I felt like conflict followed me everywhere I went. Then I came to the United States as a refugee. Although I didn’t know a lot of English, I enrolled in high school two days later. I didn’t want to waste any more time — my education had been put on hold for too long.
Today, over 130 million out-of-school girls also have their education on hold. Many of them are living in areas of conflict. In fact, one in four of the world’s children live in crisis-affected countries.
No girl should fear for her life while going to school. No girl should be forced out of school to be married. No girl should have her future taken away.
Leaders need to take steps to ensure that every girl can safely complete 12 years of education. Leaders need to commit to the Safe Schools Declaration to protect students from violence. I know how it feels to be afraid in your school — and I don’t want any other girl to know that feeling.
Because I completed 12 years of education, my future is my own. I am in college studying international relations so that I can go to law school and serve my people in Yemen as a human rights lawyer. Every girl deserves this opportunity to choose her future.
I am fighting to give back to girls what conflict and violence tried to take away from them — what conflict and violence almost took away from me. Will you join me?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zaynab Abdi is a Malala Fund girl advocate and a Green Card Voices youth ambassador. At St. Catherine University, she is an honours student, soccer captain and student senate chair.