I first met the worlds' youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai last year. Each year on her birthday, Malala chooses a place to shine a light on girls in need. The company I founded, Schoola, had already partnered to raise money for Malala Fund through the sale of new and used clothing, so I was honored when she and her father invited me to join them on a “Malala Day” trip to visit girls in Kenya and Rwanda.
Nelson Mandela wisely said, “As we let our own light shine, we consciously give other people permission to do the same.” Malala Yousafzai shone incandescently over the course of this week. Malala's annual birthday trips raise awareness of girls who are in need: Two years ago, she visited the family of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria; last year, she visited a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon to raise awareness of their plight. And this year, she visited a couple of the world’s most disenfranchised communities, including the slums of Nairobi and two UN-run refugee camps — one on the Somali border in Dadaab, Kenya and the second on the border of Burundi in Mahama, Rwanda. In listening to the hundreds of girls she met with and serving as an inspiration, Malala helped them learn to let their lights shine.
While you might not expect it amongst such hardship and poverty, almost all of the girls we met with talked not only of their own dreams, but of helping others once those dreams were realized. Their communities were rich and connected. There is an understood symbiosis among the girls that grow up together, an unwritten contract that if you succeed, it is your responsibility to help others do so as well, to carry the light of progress forward from one individual to the rest of the community.
Whitney of Nairobi: From the Slums to a Career in IT
To me, Whitney from the Nairobi slums exudes that ethos of responsibility. She has a heart condition which will require her to take medication for her whole life. To pay for the medication, Whitney’s mother has sold street food from a cart since Whitney was a baby. Through a Malala Fund-supported organization called Nairobits, Whitney completed an IT degree, giving her web design skills and job training to compete in one of Africa’s leading tech hubs. I sat down at her workstation, one of several dozen around the classroom, and she showed me her portfolio of work. Like others who had gone through the program, I was impressed by the ingenuity of Whitney’s design and quality of her work.
Several months ago, she secured an unpaid internship. Within a month, the company put Whitney on salary. Whitney now not only pays for her own medication, but supports her siblings and mother. Her dream? To start her own company where she can hire and train other girls from Nairobi’s slums. While this story is Whitney’s alone, I heard many variations of the same from girls in Nairobi, Dadaab and Mahama. Giving just one girl, like Whitney, an education can actually impact an entire village. It’s the most natural and intrinsic form of “leaning in” I’ve ever witnessed.
Rahma of Dadaab: Choosing Education Over an Arranged Marriage
Dadaab, despite being one of the largest UN refugee camps in the world — hosting 350,000 mostly Somalian refugees — is bleak, barren and lifeless on the whole. Situated in Kenya, on the border of Somalia, Dadaab resembled an open air prison as we drove through in our armored convoy: barbed wire fences, little movement outside living quarters, a sense of listlessness. Hope has been extinguished for many. Dadaab has existed for 25 years, and some families have three generations living there. Yet as empty as existence is in Dadaab, it is better than what awaits the refugees if they repatriate to Somalia.
But not all have lost hope. Take Rahma — she greeted our UN World Food Plane on the dusty airstrip in Dadaab. Nineteen years old, she had bright eyes, a warm heart, round face, sparkling smile and a strong handshake. She and her family moved back to Somalia several months ago. Her father promptly promised her to a 50-year-old man she had never met. Rather than accept that fate, Rahma ran away, taking an eight day bus ride back to Dadaab so that she could complete her secondary education. A step she believed, like Malala, could lead her to a different future.
Ange-Mireille of Burundi: A Teen Mom Who Dreams of Being a Journalist
Mahama lies just on the other side of the river from Tanzania in Rwanda. Banana groves abound. Upon cresting the hill to reach the entrance of the UNHCR-run Mahama camp, the landscape is littered with temporary white tents as far as the eye can see. Yet despite the abject poverty, everywhere we went, the eloquence, wisdom, strength and clarity of mind of the girls we met blew me away. One after another, they stood up and spoke the truth. And did so in a way that one couldn’t help but sit up and listen — and often cry.
Ange-Mireille shared her story of traveling from Burundi, where over 270,000 refugees have fled to avoid political persecution, to Mahama, Rwanda, a refugee camp nestled on the Tanzania and Burundi border. She is 19 and became a mother three years ago. Despite that, she is in her last year of school in Mahama. During her journey from Burundi to Mahama, she witnessed violence at gunpoint against two girls and felt helpless. Not just helpless in that moment, but in the reaction of the girls themselves as well as their community after the assault. The girls dropped out of school and have all but receded into the dark in shame.
As Ange-Mireille shared, we cried. Malala’s father responded so beautifully to the girls, saying, “She cried as you cry. But you know, first you cry, then you scream and then you shout and raise your voice for your rights. When there is night, there is a dawn."
Ange-Mireille is right there at the breaking dawn. It took real bravery to stand up in that room and share what she did. She returned to school not just for herself and her child, but in the hopes of becoming a journalist to shed light on the issue of violence against women and girls. I left the room with the girls in Mahama, the penultimate stop before we headed to the airport, thinking how much better off the world would be if the girls we met at each place over the past three days were in charge. These girls possess a deep wisdom and understanding and have a powerful ability to lead, if only we’d let them.
You Can Help These Girls Access Education & Change the World
Malala inspires legions of girls and women to become more than they already are, simply through her presence. Watching Malala stand in solidarity with thousands of Somalians, Kenyans, and Burundians over the course of the trip was quite something to behold. I don’t doubt for a minute that Whitney, Rahma and Ange-Mireille (and many other girls we met) will become leaders in their communities, and as their own stars rise, they will reach down to pull up other girls up behind them. That will happen in no small part due to Malala’s bravery and example. I feel deeply honored to have born witness to Malala’s ability to inspire girls in the deepest human way — to become more than they are today to reach their fullest human potential.
What can you do to help? Malala Fund needs your support to help girls around the world go to school. Malala Fund works in regions where girls face the greatest challenges to secondary education, like early marriage, gender-based violence, discrimination or conflict. You can help expand their impact by shopping or donating on Schoola. Request a free clothing donation bag, and the items will be sold online with 40% of the proceeds benefiting Malala Fund. Or, you can shop donated clothing to give back.