Building Tunnels

My name is Ahmed Badr, and I am 18-year old former refugee from Baghdad, Iraq. When I was eight years old, my house was bombed by a militia. Soon after this, my family relocated to Syria. After two years in Syria, we applied for refugee status with the United Nations. After a year of interviews and background checks, we received four one-way tickets to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. But why did we leave Iraq?

As a child, I was told that we left because of the bombing of our house, and that Baghdad was no longer safe for my family. While true, this reason was much more complicated than what my then eight year-old mind could comprehend. The issues plaguing Iraq and its people were much more multi-dimensional.

It is only now, nine years later, that I've begun to understand the complexity and, yet, the simplicity of our decision to leave our home country. The answer to the previous question came down to two key concepts: education and self-empowerment.

These two, when paired together, provide a population with the chance to prosper and succeed; they craft an umbrella that insures safety and a suitable environment for growth. When these concepts are absent, a population will feel disenfranchised, and begin to consider relocation.

The success of education can be assessed by a healthy proportion between hard work and reward. As a student, I want to feel like my hard work accounts for something, and that I can excel in my studies if I decide to do so. The exact opposite is happening in Iraq. The education system has now become so flawed that one can pay their way into a good grade.

This past December, we travelled back to Baghdad for the first time in nine years, and I received a first-hand introduction to this flawed system of education.

On the very first night, I found myself sitting in my grandparents' home, speaking with my cousin, Amjad, whom I grew up and played with for several years. Amjad is two years older than me and is attending a vocational school for management. I sat there and listened to Amjad as he recounted his experience within the Iraqi educational system.

One day, he walked into class, and found that there was nowhere to sit - not because of a lack of empty chairs - but because his classroom was completely empty except for a chalkboard. Amjad sat on the ground, and began to take notes on his professor's lecture. After class, Amjad approached his professor and asked him a question regarding the lesson.

The professor would not answer Amjad's question unless Amjad paid him.

Amjad is not alone; his story exemplifies the current challenges that many students face in their pursuit for an honest education. He is now disenfranchised because he feels at a disadvantage, and thus, he fails to see "the light at the end of the tunnel."

The tunnel is a symbol for self-empowerment. Individuals must feel that they have the right and the ability to dream and make their dreams a reality. In an ideal world, Amjad sees a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, gains a sense of hope, and then takes it upon himself to accomplish a specific goal or task.

Unfortunately for Amjad, he won't be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel because there isn't a tunnel in the first place.

This creates a cycle of disenfranchisement that gives birth to a dormant environment; one in which hope ceases to exist. For many individuals like Amjad, the only choice they have left is to leave. Leaving home in pursuit of a better life is not an easy choice, yet many follow this route as it presents a more hopeful alternative to the dormant environment that they live in.

This is precisely why the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants is so important. The Summit brings together over 190 world leaders to discuss migration and how to amplify its positives and mitigate its negatives. Given its enormous power and influence, this inaugural summit has the power to build tunnels for Amjad to look through.

The Summit must discuss the steps that must be taken to ensure that these young people have a chance to empower themselves. A system that rewards hard work and intellectual curiosity must be established. These individuals are very resilient, and this resilience must be acknowledged.

And what about individuals who don't belong to the younger generations? Are they left out simply because of their age? Of course not.

The increase in the quality of education for these young people will, in turn, help other age groups. The reverberations of reform will be felt throughout the minds and hearts of adolescents and elders alike.

Middle Eastern youth is a group that long been discouraged, and this must change in order to fix the bleeding social, cultural, and religious wounds of the region. We must start building tunnels before we expect people to see the light at the end of them.

It is because of individuals such as Amjad that I want to study government and international affairs. I want to be the voice for the youth of the Middle East, those who have the potential to be amazing leaders, but do not have the means to do so. I want to share my experiences, gain new insights, and transform my skills to benefit the world and all of its citizens.

Someday, I want to make it possible for Amjad to ask his professor a question and receive an answer, without compensation.

Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the occasion of two critical conferences at the UN on the Refugee and Migrant crisis: the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants (Sept. 19th, a UN conference) and the Leaders Summit on Refugees (Sept. 20th, hosted by U.S. Pres. Barack Obama, at the UN). To see all the posts in the series, visit here. To follow the conversation on Twitter, see #UN4RefugeesMigrants.