October 03, 2016

From Yemen to the United Nations: St. Kate’s student advocates for women’s education

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Zaynab Adbi '20, Muzoon Almellehan and Malala Fund Director Meighan Stone discuss access to education at the Social Good Summit. Photo courtesy of Zaynab Abdi.

Little did Zaynab Abdi ’20 know that a chance luncheon with Malala Yousafzai would result in an appearance at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) week— and the opportunity to advocate for refugee women’s education.

During her Minneapolis stop in July, Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, met with Abdi and other refugee girls to learn about their stories.

“She gave us time to talk, express our feelings and the issues we’re concerned about around the world, like immigration and what we want to do. I’m a very talkative person, so I shared a lot — telling everything in my heart!” says Abdi, a first-year political science major who wants to become a human rights lawyer.

Her story apparently made an impression on Yousafzai. Meighan Stone, director of advocacy and programs for the Malala Fund, reached out to Abdi in early September, inviting her to attend a series of events during UNGA week — as a delegate for their organization, which aims to ensure access to education for all girls worldwide.

Abdi flew to New York, and was joined by another Malala Fund youth advocate, Muzoon Almellehan, a Syrian refugee.

The first stop on Abdi’s whirlwind trip was an appearance at the Social Good Summit, a two-day conference held annually during UNGA week that brings global leaders together to discuss solutions for the greatest challenges of our time. Participants this year were asked: “What kind of a world do you want to live in by 2030?”

Abdi, Almellehan and U. S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken were featured in the session “Access to Education: Paving the Road Home,” moderated by Stone.

Education is particularly precious to Abdi. Hers was interrupted for two years when her family fled war-torn Yemen, only to arrive in Egypt as revolution broke out. Less than two years ago, she arrived in the U.S. without knowing one word of English. Yet, during her time at Wellstone International School in Minneapolis, she became student council president, captain of the soccer team and graduated Valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA.

“I did this through hard work. There are a lot of girls, a lot of people who are refugees that can do even better than me. They just need the chance to study like me — to have the freedom of education,” said Abdi during the session.

She also expressed that refugees don’t need to be feared, or reminded of the horrors they left behind; they need opportunity.

“For me, I have seen three wars, and it’s horrible. When I come here, I need someone to welcome me with open arms, someone to tell me how great I am,” Abdi explained. “Refugees are the same as other people. We all share the same sun, the same sky, and we can share the same love together.”

Muzoon Almellehan and Zaynab Abdi Muzoon Almellehan and Zaynab Abdi during the Social Good Summit. UN Photo/Laura Jarriel

Deputy Secretary Blinken opened his remarks with thanks to Abdi and Almellehan — and this reminder of the power of one person’s voice:
“Your stories, and your willingness to tell them, are more important than you even know. Because those of us responsible for working on the policy, we sit in windowless conference rooms and talk about abstract notions,” he said. “But [the impact of our work] all comes back to you — and to boys and girls, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters — that’s what it’s about. If we ever lose sight of that, we’ll be lost.”

According to Blinken, there are 60–70 million young girls and boys, women and men around the world who are forcibly displaced from their homes. Put them together in one country, and they would have the 24th highest population in the world.

“We have an obligation to do something about it. It’s a moral obligation, but it’s also frankly in our self-interest,” he said. In addition to infusing the international humanitarian system with more funding, Blinken said the Obama Administration was working on a UN commitment to one million more seats in school next year for refugee children.

“The [Deputy] Secretary promised that he would stand with us. He comes from a family of refugees, and understands,” said Abdi. “To have someone like that support the refugee issue — wow — it just means so much.”

During her UNGA trip, Abdi also attended a 30-minute program with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, followed by 2 hours of dialogue with refugees, migrants and UN Member States. Her last stop: the UN Women’s Side Event, “Refugee & Migrants Girls & Young Women: Facing Challenges During Crisis.”

Abdi is grateful for the opportunity to speak with global leaders, and to advocate for education.

“We need world leaders to understand the situation," said Abdi. "Not leaders who simply represent their countries, with no experience with what’s really going on. It was great to have the opportunity to share my story."

By Sharon Rolenc