Farah Al Haddad (pictured left) is a 20-year-old Syrian activist and a first-year student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Previously, she attended a two-year boarding school in the US. Her parents currently live in Damascus. Passionate about education and frustrated with the violence in her country, Farah spoke at a conference held in late September 2013 by British Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown on the importance of education in the Syrian refugee camps. Here Gate reporter, Jane Huber, sits down with Farah to discuss the United World College experience, education for refugees in the Middle East, and Malala Yousafzai.
Jane Huber, The Gate: You attended a United World College in New Mexico (UWC-USA), one of the 13 International Baccalaureate international schools around the world. UWC-USA is home to two hundred young people representing roughly seventy-five nations, and educates them with the goal of “making education a force to unite peoples, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” How did that experience affect the way you saw the international conversation around intervention and the “red line” drawn at chemical weapons?
Farah Al Haddad: Going to UWC gave me the chance to know students as people and not as governments. When I feel frustrated about either too much intervention or too little intervention, I don’t think of the people I met at UWC, because I think of those people as actual change makers. I feel like they’re going to do something and they actually care, as opposed to their countries. The world felt much more interconnected once I went to UWC. I felt connected to the stories from different countries and it feels like Syria isn’t the only one, in a sense. The fact that I can sit and have a discussion with my Venezuelan friend, and that we can relate so well, made me realize that it’s not just Syria. A lot of governments function the same way [as Syria’s] and a lot of people express the same concerns of their government or other governments. Although it gave me hope, because those people are amazing and they’re going to change things, it also gave me some type of a more pessimistic view because I saw that in a lot of places, there’s a disconnect between what people want to do and how they and their governments react to situations.
Gate: Did studying at a UWC in the US change your perspective on how the international community reacts to politics and the perceived threat of the broader Middle East?
FH: In this part of the world [the US], there is a lot of isolation or there is a sense of “us vs. them.” Just the fact that people feel that it’s easier to create that divide and feel that they’re shielded and isolated, which they are. For example, when I need to discuss something, a lot of my American friends would advise not to let my emotions interfere. So it seems like, because there are people who are very much away from what’s happening in the Middle East, they can kind of analyze and discuss and criticize, but they’re still isolated from it. So UWC created this atmosphere where you can’t just be isolated in these discussions. You can’t be isolated from these situations. Because [at UWC,] you’re actually meeting people from those countries, and it just changes you and changes them.
Gate: You recently spoke at a conference in NY hosted by Gordon Brown, speaking just before Malala Yousafzai. What was the impact of the conference and what role did you play?
FH: The impact of the conference is.... It’s still an ongoing process and I’m still trying to organize this in my head. I am called a youth activist. My role was to give a short speech expressing what I think education does, or how it helps basically—especially in the situation of refugees. But I think the bigger picture was for people to put a face or a bunch of different faces on the cause, just like they are doing with Malala [Yousafzai]. Well, in my case it was a much smaller scale, but in Malala’s case, for example, she’s all over the media now. And I feel like it’s just using a symbol for a bigger cause and pulling on the guilt of certain people. I’m still questioning a lot. After the conference, I don’t know necessarily what my role was. But just the fact that there’s an article on Huffington Post opposing the image of Malala being all over the place and having to do with “white guilt” or whatever—it’s a very controversial article. But it does make valid points in which it talks about Gordon Brown, for example, and that he voted yes for the Iraqi intervention and how these same people are now creating good deeds. And so this whole conflict in my brain is going on. It’s interesting how I’m still reflecting on [the conference] every day and [whether] it was a good idea to present myself and know that I’m being kind of used for a cause in a sense. And then on the other hand, I’m like, “Yeah, hell yeah I want to be used for this cause!” because for me, it’s about the bigger picture, which is giving education to the refugees.
Gate: How should the focus of education be brought to Syria and in the reconciliation of your country? What needs to be done in the field of education for people in the refugee camps?
FH: Education to me is not necessarily only giving textbooks, giving book knowledge, getting them to write homework, and getting them to feel “normal” and all those things. But also, this education will give them a chance, perhaps, it can be offered as the chance for them to rehabilitate. Education is a chance for us to look out for their mental and psychological health. It’s not just education in the sense of “let’s just go to a classroom,” but “let’s go to a classroom with other kids who are suffering through the same things, and so we can have a better chance for the future because without that there, it’s a lost generation,” in the words of Gordon Brown. So I feel like there is a lot to be done. The kids are paying the price for our stupid mistakes, and it should not be that way. Not at all. Education should be offered along with their basic needs.
Gate: Have you ever been to or seen any of the refugee camps in Jordan?
FH: In Jordan, you need a super-duper security pass to get into Zaatari camp, and so I couldn’t get one. I didn’t even try because you need to be a part of big organizations. Even my parents are kind of concerned about these things. I mean, for security reasons, my mom was a little paranoid. And apparently there are all sorts of diseases flowing around. I mean, I was ready after [graduating] UWC in the summer [of 2013] to go around and be super involved in the refugee camps, and so a lot of my summer I didn’t do anything and I was just sitting around feeling horrible. And so now that I am in college, I am basically drowning myself with whatever I can do to help.... People here in [the US] know about the issue, which is great, but there also needs to be action.
Gate: Having just met Malala Yousafzai, do you have any comment on the Nobel Peace Prize announcement?
FH: I might need to reflect more on it, but my initial reaction was disappointment. I understand that they are wanting to provide an incentive to those who trying to make change, but how about the change makers who are risking their lives to save others'? These guys are getting paid and are provided with protection to achieve the political agenda of the US and Russia, in my opinion. What has been killing the people isn't the chemical weapons (mostly). I guess what they're doing is just too little, too late.