Malala Yousafzai Spent Her 20th Birthday Meeting With Displaced Girls In Iraq

Happy birthday, Malala!

Malala Yousafzai celebrated her 20th birthday this week by visiting and speaking with girls at a camp for displaced people in Iraq.

The visit to Iraq’s Hassan Shami camp, outside the recently liberated city of Mosul, is part of the young Pakistani activist’s “Girl Power Trip,” aimed at promoting education for women and girls around the world.

“We need to encourage girls that their voice matters,” Yousafzai said in an interview with TIME. “I think there are hundreds and thousands of Malalas out there.”

Yousafzai has made it a ritual of using her birthdays to highlight girls’ and women’s rights. The tradition started on her 16th birthday, when Yousafzai made her first public appearance after the Taliban attack that nearly killed her, in an address at the United Nations. After that, the UN officially declared her birthday, July 12, “Malala Day.”

This time last year the activist was visiting refugee girls in Kenya and Rwanda. The year before that she opened a secondary school for Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon. Her 17th birthday passed with a visit with the families of the victims of the Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria. 

This year, Yousafzai met with Iraqi girls who lived under the self-proclaimed Islamic State and shared her own experience under the Taliban. “We were living in the same situation,” Yousafzai told the schoolgirls.

Yousafzai first gained prominence as a young girl by speaking out against the militant group’s ban on girls’ education in Pakistan. She was 15 years old in 2012, when a Taliban gunman shot her in the head and injured two of her classmates while they were riding a bus home from school.

In a blog post published Wednesday, Yousafzai described meeting with 13-year-old Iraqi schoolgirl, Nayir, who’s experience fighting to get an education echoed her own:

When Nayir fled Mosul, she was determined to go back to school. “No matter what, nothing will keep me from finishing my studies,” she told me. Her new classroom is a small tent in the camp. She just took her exams in sweltering heat.

But Nayir knows that education is her best chance for a better future. After all she has suffered, she described the feeling of returning to school: “It was as if all my hopes came back.”

I know how Nayir feels.

Yousafzai’s visit wasn’t entirely somber, though. She also set some time aside to eat cake and play bumper cars with her new friends.

Since the Taliban attack in 2012, Yousafzai has lived with her family in Birmingham, England. In between traveling the world to promote girls’ education and winning a Nobel Peace Prize, the young activist has been finishing up high school and has her sights set on Oxford University for the fall.

But many of the girls Yousafzai has worked to lift up won’t have these kinds of opportunities.

“If you look at how many people are suffering because of wars and conflicts, we have to open our hearts, we have to open our homes,” Yousafzai told TIME. “We have to support these people.”



Why Malala Yousafzai Is An Inspiration