Ahead of two major summits about the global refugee crisis this week, Malala Fund President Meighan Stone said she wants world leaders to match the resolve of the young refugees with whom she works.
The Malala Fund—founded by Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for going to school in Pakistan when she was 15—aims to ensure that all girls receive an education. As the Syrian refugee crisis has developed, advocating for the country’s young refugees has become one of the organization’s top priorities.
In an interview after her panel discussion at the Social Good Summit on Sunday, Motto spoke with Stone about her work and her expectations for the refugee summits hosted by the United Nations and President Barack Obama on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.
The interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Motto: What do you hope will be the outcome of the summits?
Stone: The risk this week is not achieving world change for refugees globally and particularly for girls who want an education. There are many summits, there are many commitments. Oftentimes they’re not binding. Oftentimes countries will make commitments, and they don’t actually then deliver the funds fully or in a timely way. We need to make powerful commitments and then deliver on them in a timely way so that students can get back into school now. Secondly, we need to change some of these frameworks that are outdated. If you look at the 1951 Refugee Convention, it only guarantees a right to primary education for refugee students globally, and that has to change. We have to guarantee a right to a full 12 years of education for every student. Lastly, different countries have different strategies, and we have to find a way to bring all these plans together and make them actually work for refugees.
Motto: What kind of action would you like to see from U.S. leaders in particular?
Stone: We see with President Obama a real commitment to this issue. It’ll be vital that, whatever the outcome of this presidential election, that that president decides to prioritize this response because we live in a really unstable world right now, and either we can play a short-term game and lose in the long term, or we can have a sound long-term strategy that actually makes a better, safer world for us all.
Motto: How will the refugees who work with the Malala Fund play a role this week?
Stone: We take our example at the Malala Fund from Malala, herself, and she believes, in the most forthright way possible, that the only way to change girls’ education is for girls to actually have a seat at the table. The only way that we’re going to have full funding and policies that work is if we listen to them. For a long time at these summits, you would look in the room and it would be in your name without you. And that has to change. Our goal is always to bring the girls to the places of influence where real decisions are being made.
Motto: According to a recent report by the Malala Fund, nearly 80% of adolescent refugees are now out of school. Is there a way for you to characterize the impact that is having on this generation?
Stone: People talk about having a lost generation of Syrians, and it’s happening. It’s happening right in front of us. And leaders, everyday people around the world, have a choice: either to take action or to continue to let this unfold with tragic consequences. But the opportunity to help these young people—to help refugees globally achieve their potential, to be able to rebuild their country, to have jobs, to have families, to have communities that are thriving—is profound. But it takes prioritization. It takes political will. (Syrian refugee) Muzoon (Almellehan), when we met her with Malala, was literally going from tent to tent pushing girls to go to school, and very bravely, asking parents to make sure their daughters weren’t getting married and were getting an education. Their resolve needs to be matched by the resolve of our world leaders. The leaders at this week’s summits need to show the same commitment that these refugee girls are showing, and we’re letting them down.
Motto: Is there a specific part of this global problem that is most important to tackle?
Stone: Full funding of refugee education, particularly for girls, is needed, and we want leaders to take action, but the data piece is really vital as well. If we say that girls count, we actually have to count girls. A lot of times, countries aren’t even keeping good data on what’s happening with refugees or migrants in their countries. We need the real numbers to make good policy decisions.
Motto: Beyond political leaders, what should people in the U.S. be doing to respond to the crisis?
Stone: I think we have a really great example in Canada of what leadership can do, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that Canada’s arms are open to welcome refugees. You hear about Canadian families who are on waiting lists to sponsor or host Syrian refugee families. In the United States right now, we have a real choice about whether we engage in the world or we give in to values that are not what we say make this country great. And I think that countries all over the world have this challenge. I think we have a great opportunity—whoever this next leader is in the United States—to embrace the values that make this country who we say we are as Americans. And I think all countries now are being asked to reaffirm this commitment to human rights and to welcome the stranger, to find ways to support millions and millions of refugees. The global community’s got to do a better job. We’ve got to do a better job of figuring out how to empower this group. We have to do better. We have to.