The Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai who was named the 2014 Peace Prize laureate when she was 17, gave a moving speech this week during the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. She underlined the opportunities Birmingham had given her and her family when they arrived from Pakistan.
In October 2012, the Pakistani advocate for female education was flown to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham where she underwent surgery to repair her skull after being shot in the head by a Taliban assassin while on a bus. They had tried to silence her with a bullet, which grazed her brain. On the day she was shot, she wrote, ‘I was afraid of going to school because the Taliban had issued an edit banning all girls from attending schools. Only 11 out of 27 pupils attended class’.
Due to her love of reading which was denied to her when the Taliban closed schools for girls, she was invited to open the new £199m civic Library in Birmingham in 2013. Addressing the crowd as ‘fellow Brummies’, she said she was honoured to be invited to open the library. ‘Birmingham is very special for me because it is here that I found myself alive, seven days after I was shot. The doctors and nurses of this town worked hard to help me recover. The teachers of this town strived to rehabilitate my educational career, and the great people of this city gave me great moral support’. This is a great accolade for a city that has welcomed so many people and has the youngest population of any European City.
Malala, now a graduate from Oxford University said she had challenged herself to read thousands of books. ‘Pens and books are the weapons that defeat terrorism. I truly believe the only way we can create global peace is through educating not only our minds, but our hearts and our souls’. In her book entitled, ‘I am Malala’, she says how she was born in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son but daughters are hidden away behind a curtain simply to prepare food and give birth to children.
In her speech at the Games last weekend, she claimed that the athletes competing at the Commonwealth Games were a reminder that ‘every child deserves the chance to reach her full potential and pursue her wildest dreams’. Her message is based on knowledge, wisdom and resilience and highlights Birmingham as a lesson for any city with refugees and their inclusion in society. As a city, it is the first to say that it hasn’t always got it right but clearly now has much to teach us all.
Many of our laudable acts with regards to refugees in our own city, focus on charity rather than inclusion but with a change of mindset we might come to see that it is we who benefit most from their presence. In the initial months of refugees coming to us, housing, language classes, healthcare etc may cost significantly but this investment soon pays off. New businesses are set up, our schools and society become more socially diverse and our culture is massively enriched. We can help this process by being inclusive in our practices and also taking the time to listen to their story. We will then understand how a more diverse Newry can enrich our lives. It is a humbling experience.