My Evening with Malala Yousafzai

Discovery and ProgressAwesome Moments

“They only shot a body but they cannot shoot my dreams.” — Malala Yousafzai

I have been to several 16th birthday parties for family and friends, but the most memorable was on July 12, 2013, for Malala Yousafzai.

I was invited to this event because my mother, the Global Director of Equality Now, a non-profit organization involved in combating violence against women and girls, was helping the organizers of the Malala Fund.

Malala is a Pakistani girl who has been speaking out against the Taliban’s attacks on girls’ schools in Swat, Pakistan, since the age of 12. Located in northwest Pakistan, the beautiful valley of Swat was at one time known as the “Switzerland of Asia.” My mother recounts her happy memories of a family vacation in Swat when she was a school-girl in Pakistan. However, post-Talibanization, the valley was overtaken by terrorism, violence, and an intolerance that has dictated daily life. The Taliban seeks to eliminate education for women and girls, and confine them to their houses. They wreak havoc on both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Malala responded to these challenges by calling for schools and education for girls. While adults were afraid to go against the Taliban, Malala courageously spoke out. She realized she had no future if the Taliban was in control. When I heard about this, I was amazed; I hadn’t realized that anyone could be so brave. In her book, I Am Malala, she describes how the Taliban publicly whips people in the town square. I know that if I were in her position, I would have been far too afraid to even step out of my house.

In October of 2012, Malala was shot by the Taliban. It was unclear for several days whether she would survive. The world breathed a sigh of relief when it appeared that she was improving and that a full recovery might be possible. Most of all, Malala had not lost her spirit after this near-death experience; rather, her resolve to stand up against the Taliban was strengthened.

After she regained consciousness, Malala’s first public appearance was at the United Nations on the day of her 16th birthday. My cousins and I were invited to a private birthday party with Malala and her family. I could not wait. Before the party, I watched a video of Malala speaking at the United Nations, and was astounded that a 16-year-old girl was better spoken and more moving than either Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, or Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of the UK. I realized the whole world would be watching her, and that I would actually get to meet her later that day. It was a bit overwhelming.

I was quite nervous to meet her as I could clearly see she was unlike any other 16-year-old I have ever encountered. Fortunately, my anxiety was misplaced. As we entered the apartment, Malala and her family greeted us very warmly. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, is another activist in the family. He has always supported Malala. He comes from an area of Pakistan where people are devastated at the birth of a girl, rather than a boy, and where the prime characteristics of a “good girl” are obedience and silence. Instead of conforming to such social norms, he took Malala wherever he went and encouraged her to stand up for what she believed in. In his words, “I did not clip her wings.” Malala’s mother was shy and quiet, as she only speaks Pashto, a language native to that region.

Malala was very excited to help decorate the party room with streamers, noisemakers, and party-hats. I found this interesting as most American 16-year-olds would not have been. Her two younger brothers were very interested in games, magic tricks, and making people laugh. They had set up a Beyblades spinning top arena, as well as card games. We all played together, and Malala showed us some card tricks and taught us how to play with Beyblades. Maybe she wasn’t as different from other kids as I had previously thought. Still, it felt slightly weird playing games with someone who I had just seen only a few hours ago making a speech at the United Nations. I remember thinking how a lot of teenagers I know absolutely despise school, while this girl risked her life just so that she could go to school. Her fight for education makes me appreciate my schooling all the more.

Although she is an international celebrity, and can as easily talk about issues ranging from education policy to terrorism, she likes to have fun. She told us that next time she visited she would like to go to Six Flags and ride a roller-coaster as she had never been on one. Later on, the easy conversation moved into more troubling matters as Malala vividly described her ordeal after her shooting. When she woke up in the hospital, she worried about the cost of the hospital treatment and her parents ability to pay. When they visited her, she pretended that her wound didn’t hurt too much so as not to worry them, even though she was in extreme agony. It surprised me that as she spoke about her experience she maintained her composure, something I found very admirable, as her story was extremely painful — both physically and emotionally.

Thinking back on that party, I am fortunate to have been in the presence of one of those rare individuals who are not afraid to risk everything for a cause in which they believe. Such individuals are few and far between; they change the course of history. Among them I would count Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gloria Steinem. Most people will turn a blind eye to injustices around them as it is easier to do so. Spending time with Malala I was struck by how easy it was to talk to her, and how humble and well-mannered she is; she got up to give her seat to my mother! She has a presence, poise, and strength that I have never seen in any other teenager. It was truly inspiring and has made me all the more grateful for what I have. I knew that I was meeting a leader who will do great things for the world.

Zeeshan Hassan-Andoh is in 8th Grade at Saint Ann’s School. He is of Pakistani and Ghanaian origin. He enjoys travel, reading, writing, architecture, and drawing.

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