This Tuesday, the University at Buffalo welcomed girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai as the first speaker of their Distinguished Speaker Series of 2018-2019. Having Malala as a speaker was an extremely incredible opportunity as she was the youngest Nobel Prize Laureate in history at the age of 17 in 2014, co-sharing the prize with Kailash Satyarthi for their exceptional work in achieving education for women and children. Malala is also the seventh Nobel Prize Laureate recipient to speak at UB in the school’s history.
Yousafzai, a champion of education since she was 11 and started her BBC Urdu blog, was born in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. She became recognized in 2012 when she was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban on a school bus, after the Taliban had banned women from attending school. During the Taliban’s occupation of Pakistan, Yousafzai still tried to attend school. She received medical attention in Pakistan, and once she was stable enough she was transported to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, U.K.
Seeing Yousafzai in person was a worldly experience. It was like seeing someone online and on TV, and then seeing them in real life and not believing your eyes. I have so much respect for her and what she stands for as an advocate of education. She entered the stage wearing a beautiful brown hijab and her characteristic smile. When she walked into the room, the room lit up in applause and smiles; her own was contagious. She had a very humble and kind presence, even though she is one of the most recognizable women in the world.
She began the talk with a 15-minute discussion of her work and the history behind it. The other hour and a half was prompted by the Dean of UB, Robin Schulze, through her own questions as well as those tweeted and texted in by the audience. Many interesting questions were asked, but there were a few that stuck out to me. One was how Yousafzai deals with the criticism from the Pakistani government, fellow Pakistanis, and on social media. Yousafzai replied that she works for education for all, and that the few extremists that run the government do not represent Pakistan as a whole.
She also stated that many Pakistanis do not have access to social media, and therefore the hateful words from the few that do are not accurate representations of the people. An invaluable piece of advice she gave to us women was to not be afraid to do things, because fear is the biggest thing that holds most of us back. She stated that the Taliban saw her as a threat because she was using her voice and talking about the injustices of their regime, and they tried to silence her by shooting her. In my opinion, Yousafzai is incredibly brave because she continues to fight for what is right even after almost being killed for her actions.
Yousafzai was also asked her opinion on the refugee crisis around the world. I loved how she responded, which was by saying that refugees do not choose to be refugees; war has made them so. The refugees, she said, are people that are trying to escape the real enemy, which are people and regimes like the Taliban. She said that it is not the refugees we should be afraid and weary of, but the people that made them into refugees. It is human to want to help others, and that’s what we should do.
Yousafzai explained how these refugees are not unemployed burdens, but willing to work and contribute to the American economy by bringing their own cultures with them. We have to have compassion and sympathy for people that are fleeing from these high tension and deadly situations, because we would want the same if we lived in a high conflict country.
I found Yousafzai to be inspiring, because at the age of 11 she decided to stick out of the crowd and fight for something she very well knew could get her killed. A quote that stuck out to me was that you don’t have to get a bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, then a house, get married, and have kids in order to start doing something. Because before you know it, you’ll be 60, so start now. Do good now.