How did you mark your last birthday? Drinks with friends? Dinner with family? With a card, a cake, or maybe a gift or two? Birthdays are a great time to celebrate and reflect on where we’ve come from, where we’re at, and where we’re headed. On Sunday, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai turned 18 years old. How did she celebrate? She launched a school. Dissatisfied with the educational options available to female Syrian refugees, Malala used her self-titled non-profit to fund a school in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Situated close to the Syrian border, the school aims to help 200 Syrian girls obtain baccalaureate or vocational degrees.
Image courtesy of NPR
If you’re not aware of Syria’s civil war, read up. After peaceful protests erupted during 2011’s Arab Spring, President Bashar al-Assad and his army responded with a wave of kidnapping, murder, rape, and torture. Over time, civilians began to fire back and the fighting escalated to a full-blown civil war. But it’s more complicated than that; due to Syria’s position within the Middle East, the country witnessed both an influx volunteers eager to free Syria from al-Assad and jihadists aiming to dismantle Syria’s secular government. But with an arsenal of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, Assad continues to hold his ground.
Image courtesy of Ahmad Fatemi and Maria Rohaly
During this four year period, Syria’s economy crashed and conditions deteriorated as the government blocked foreign aid from entering the country. To date, 4.25 million Syrians have escaped to neighboring countries like Jordan and Lebanon. With no end to the fighting in sight, temporary camps now serve as permanent homes for the population. Acknowledging this reality, Turkish educator Enver Yucel recently pledged $10 million of his own money to set up schools in the country’s refugee camps. Yucel’s efforts are hotly contested in Turkey, where Syrians are viewed as competition for jobs and resources. But, as Yucel argues, there are far more consequences for allowing a generation of Syrians to languish without skills.
Image courtesy of NPR
Malala’s campaign follows in the same vein but places additional focus on educating young women and girls. In a recent blog post, she coined the hashtag #booksnotbullets and argued that if the world’s nations ceased military spending for 8 days, the leftover $39 billion dollars could fund 12 years of free education for every child. Granted, not everyone has a book deal, a non-profit, or a far-reaching network like Malala. And it shouldn’t be assumed that a birthday celebration can’t be about you. But her actions provide some interesting food for thought for the coming year. What are you passionate about? What change do you want to make in the world? How can a birthday be a celebration of life as well as a way to contribute to something bigger than yourself? With my big 3-0 only six months away, I’ve got some thinking to do.