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World Young Syrian fights for her homeland’s future from thousands of miles away

Muzoon Almellehan is living in England, but the 17-year-old remains committed to her wartime role, encouraging young Syrians to stay in school and prepare for the day they will need to rebuild their country.

Robert Ormerod/The Globe and Mail

She's thousands of kilometres away from her homeland, but Muzoon Almellehan is still fighting for Syria.

The rainy grey streets of this English port city could hardly feel further from the olive grove-covered hills of her home province of Daraa, but the 17-year-old Ms. Almellehan sees everything she does here – from her high-school studies to her relentless campaigning to ensure other refugee children get access to education – as a front in the war for her homeland's future.

"If everybody thinks 'I can't do anything,' then nothing will change. I told myself that if I keep silent, nothing will change," she said, sitting in her favourite building in her new home town, Newcastle's main public library, her hair tucked under a tight grey head scarf.

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Ms. Almellehan's rousing voice echoes through the quiet building, her natural charisma overriding the rules of the room. The library staff repeatedly look over during our hour-long conversation, but no one tries to shush her.

She has been called her country's Malala Yousafzai, a comparison Ms. Almellehan welcomes with pride. The two young women – one Syrian, one Pakistani – have frequently stood shoulder-to-shoulder as they've tried to convince the world's leaders to spend less time and money sending weapons into their home countries, and more of both on educating a generation of refugee children growing up angry and uneducated.

The two joined forces in February to wring pledges from Western governments of $1.4-billion (U.S.) in education-targeted aid for Syrian refugees living in camps around the Middle East. The slow delivery on those promises – just $600-million has been delivered – has been a disappointment. (Canada has done far better than most countries, pledging $71.3-million in February, and delivering $143-million as of September.)

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Ms. Almellehan and Ms. Yousafzai recently travelled to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. While the two young women were feted as heroes, Mr. Almellehan says they conveyed a warning to the politicians who enjoy posing for photographs with the two young education advocates but are less keen to deliver the money they've pledged to help their cause.

"I told them 'I don't want to attend any more meetings. You said you want to support these children, but we don't see this promise [delivered]. It is easy to say something, but it is very hard to deliver. If you're not going to do anything, we don't want to sit here and just speak,'" Ms. Almellehan said in rapid-fire English she learned while living in Jordan's Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees.

She's also upset that the world is allowing Syria's brutal civil war to go on unchecked, particularly as Bashar al-Assad's regime, backed by Russian warplanes, tightens its siege on a rebel-held enclave in the city of Aleppo.

"It's so difficult to watch, especially what's going on in Aleppo. I see so many innocent people being killed – people who are not fighting against the regime, but countries like Russia are killing them every day," she says of a conflict that will enter its sixth year in January, with more than 400,000 people already dead. "If strong countries like Canada and the USA work together, they can stop Russia from killing the Syrian people."

Ms. Almellehan sees it as her wartime role to encourage young Syrians to stay in school and prepare for the day they will be called upon to help rebuild their country. "When we have a chance to get an education, in any place or any time, we must take it, because our country needs us," she says.

It's a cause she took up during the three years she and her parents were living in the Zaatari camp. Just 13 when she arrived in the sprawling tent city in the desert, Ms. Almellehan was determined to make the best of a bad situation by advancing her education at tented schools run by organizations like Save The Children and UNICEF. It was in the makeshift schools of Zaatari that she fell in love with the writings of William Shakespeare, which drove her passion for learning the English language.

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To her dismay, few of her classmates seemed as interested in learning. More and more dropped out at young ages. Boys left school to work illegally and raise some money to help their families make ends meet. Girls left to get married – often to far older men – as families tried to transfer the "burden" of feeding and protecting their girls to a husband.

"I saw girls my age, they weren't thinking about education, they were just thinking about getting married," Ms. Almellehan said. "It made me really sad because without an educated generation, we can't rebuild our country. If this generation loses its education, it will be a disaster."

That disaster is quickly unfolding. Among the 4.8 million Syrian refugees scattered around Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates there are 900,000 school-age kids not attending classes of any kind.

Child-labour rates have shot up; a Turkish factory that makes clothing for Western brands recently tumbled into scandal when campaigners found Syrian refugee children working there. Meanwhile, 35 per cent of all marriages registered in Zaatari camp involve girls under the age of 18.

That's not the way Ms. Almellehan was raised. Like Ms. Yousafzai, her father was a schoolteacher. Both young women were raised to believe that education was paramount, the only route to overcoming the situation around them.

Ms. Almellehan began her campaign by lobbying her Zaatari classmates to resist pressure from their parents and to remain in school. She eventually became an unofficial ambassador for Save The Children and UNICEF, joining aid workers as they visited troubled families to try to convince them of the importance of education.

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She got predictable pushback as a girl advocating for change in a male-dominated culture.

"I faced many difficulties," she says – particularly from the fathers of young girls, who told her she should end her campaigning. She shrugs it off now: "It made me stronger."

Her own father, Rakan, watches her with evident amazement. "I am so proud, as a teacher, to see my daughter fighting for education," he says, speaking in Arabic.

Ms. Almellehan and her family turned down several earlier opportunities to leave Jordan and move to a Western country because she wanted to remain and continue her advocacy work. But when Muzoon turned 16, her father convinced her it was finally time to prioritize her own educational needs, and her dreams of attending a Western university and becoming a journalist.

The family was offered a move to Sweden but declined, fearing that learning the language would prove too high a barrier to leap. They instead accepted an opportunity to move to Newcastle, only to find out that the English Ms. Almellehan mastered while helping aid workers in Zaatari was rather different from the Geordie accent – which some consider a dialect of its own – that rolls off tongues in this port city near England's border with Scotland.

"When I came here, I thought my English was good, but when I first arrived, I couldn't understand anything," she says with a giggle. Her parents, who arrived without her English skills, found the transition even more difficult than she did.

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But Ms. Almellehan, who is relentlessly upbeat, says that's been the only hiccup in her integration so far. Despite a rash of anti-immigrant incidents in Britain since the country voted in June to leave the European Union, she says she and her family haven't experienced any overt racism here.

Instead, she gently criticizes her fellow refugees for expecting too much too fast from their host countries, while not doing enough to understand the cultures they've arrived in. "The responsibility is to be active in the community. We should help and be positive. We should respect [the English] and they will respect us," she says. "Most [refugees] came here to get a good life. Not me. I came to be active in this country and to support this country."

But England, she says, is only home for now."I will go back to Syria as a strong person to rebuild my country again," she vows. "And I won't go back alone."

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