What Happens When The World's Most Famous Teen Activist Grows Up?

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Teen activists aren’t often met with a pop star’s welcome, but Malala Yousafzai’s arrival can ignite a fever-pitched frenzy worthy of the Selenas and Biebers of the world. That celebrity effect is on display during a recent swing through Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There’s the young woman at the indoor food bazaar, who leaves Malala’s embrace in tears, and the teen refugee who cries so hard she can barely speak. Admirers gather for autographs and photos everywhere Malala goes (a suited security guard and small army of staff trail closely behind). At a local high school, throngs of teens rise and scream when she enters the stage. “I can’t believe I got to ask Malala a question!” one gushes in the hall outside.

The roaring reception is a testament to the power of Malala’s story: At 15, she was viciously attacked by the Taliban for daring to go to school in Pakistan's Swat Valley. She’s since emerged as the most visible champion of girls' education worldwide. By 17, she had become the youngest person in history to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Malala is 19 now and once again bringing her message of gender equality to the masses, this time through a high-wattage international tour. Lancaster, a small city that has earned a reputation for welcoming refugees from around the world, is stop number one on the just-launched Girl Power Trip, a four-continent, months-long travel blitz that will include her first visit to Latin America this summer.

The idea behind the tour is for Malala to spend her summer on the road meeting young women who can help her carry the mantle of girls' education for the next fours years and beyond. That's because, come this fall, the global activist is going to college, which means at the moment she is, understandably, a bit preoccupied with getting an education of her own.

Photographed by Emily Berl.
Malala autographs books after an appearance at the Church World Service Refugee Appreciation Breakfast.

That much is evident when we sit down to talk in a sparse career services classroom at Lancaster's J.P. McCaskey High School. Her 5-foot-1 frame and gentle voice make for a softer, slightly shyer version of the powerful public speaker who has no problems calling out world leaders on their failure to act. She appears preternaturally calm, especially given the frenzied response to her surprise visit to town (a short time before, the school hallway was so congested that she couldn’t make it out to use the bathroom). But once she starts talking, it’s clear that there is one thing stressing Malala out at the moment: her homework. “People often forget that winning a Nobel Peace Prize doesn't mean that you know much in your studies,” Malala insists. “I’m doing economics, maths, and literary studies. All of them are quite hard. I have my papers with me, in my bag.”

Despite speculation that she’d apply to Stanford, Malala has opted for Oxford, which is closer to her family’s adopted home in Birmingham, England. She wants to study philosophy, politics, and economics, a path that could help prepare her for her own lofty ambitions (she’s said before that she wants to be prime minister of Pakistan someday, following in the footsteps of her personal hero, the late Benazir Bhutto). But first, she needs to get in. Oxford extended a conditional offer to her, and in order to make it official, Malala still needs to ace her final assignments and tests. The April 11 trip to Lancaster falls in the middle of her senior spring break, and Malala is hard at work on no fewer than four papers, in between events like accepting a new major honor from United Nations and meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, that is. (When I ask if she’s excited about Trudeau, a sheepish smile reveals the teen girl within: “Oh yeah.”)

People often forget that winning a Nobel Peace Prize doesn't mean that you know much in your studies.
Malala Yousafzai

This is an exciting time for Malala but it comes at a particularly fraught period for her cause. Educating girls is widely recognized as a crucial step toward improving gender parity overall, but its importance has long been overshadowed by other pressing humanitarian concerns. An estimated 130 million girls worldwide don't go school. The reasons are wide-ranging and difficult to tackle: child marriage, threats of violence, and even shortages of sanitary pads can hinder access. Progress was already slow (one 2015 analysis found efforts to meet UN-backed goals to close the gap “stalling” in 80 countries), but now with the refugee crisis and the nationalist mood spreading across the west, the issue of girls' education is at risk of getting pushed aside once again. It doesn’t help that another high-profile effort, Michelle Obama’s White House initiative Let Girls Learn, is reportedly on the chopping block. (The Trump administration recently denied reports that the program is being cut.)

All this puts extra pressure on Malala, who, through the force of her conviction and communication savvy (and resultant best-selling memoir and documentary), transformed her story into a call to action for the plight of girls everywhere.

“It is a big challenge because there are so many issues: from child marriage to child trafficking to culture issues and taboos and poverty,” she tells me. She vows to "stay strong, stay focused, and remain clever" in her efforts to push world leaders to make education a top priority, especially when it comes to aiding young refugees. “If you don't support them now, [children] who have already been out of school for so many years, they will be a generation lost," she says.

In the midst of all this activism, the high school senior is readying for another new challenge, one that will involve stepping away from the international stage for the Ivory Towers of Oxford. And then, the crossroads of adulthood awaits. All this raises a question that only Malala can answer: What happens when the world’s most famous child activist grows up?

“It’s remarkable, because she now gets to choose who she is, what she does next,” says Shiza Shahid, a Malala Fund cofounder and former CEO who has known the family since before the attack. “She’ll always be guided by a core sense of impact and mission — how she does it may evolve.”

Photographed by Emily Berl.
Malala and her dad take a brief break between appearances in Lancaster.

Malala’s path from pupil in a remote region of Pakistan to one of the most famous activists in the world is formed in tragedy. After the Taliban came to power in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, they banned girls like Malala from going to school. Malala was 11 at the time and, encouraged by her father, who ran a chain of local schools and was a longtime activist in this field, she quickly emerged as a voice for girls’ education. There was an anonymous blog on the BBC, followed by less anonymous appearances and interviews. The work came with risks, but Malala and her family underestimated how many — no one thought the militants would hurt a girl.

On October 9, 2012, they were proven wrong. Malala was riding in a converted truck that doubled as a school bus along with her peers. She remembers being in a good mood because she got high marks on a paper that day. But then a man boarded the bus. Who is Malala? He asked. He pulled out a Colt .45 and fired, striking Malala in the head. Two of her friends were also injured in the attack.

Miraculously, Malala survived. She was taken to a military hospital for emergency surgery, then eventually to a hospital in the United Kingdom for treatment. Her family, including two younger brothers, joined her there; it was clear then that it would be too dangerous for them to stay in Pakistan. To this day, they have not been able to return.

Less than six months later, Malala slung a pink backpack over her shoulder and returned to school, this time in Birmingham, England. And in 2013, the Malala Fund was born.

Since its creation, the fund has poured $8.6 million into the cause, lobbying world leaders and supporting school construction, along with creative efforts to help girls learn in the face of crises like the Ebola outbreak or threats of kidnapping and rape. In the coming months, the fund will welcome a new CEO, Farah Mohamed. Aside from the Girl Power Trip there’s the newly launched Gulmakai Network, an effort to “speed up progress” on leveling the education playing field. The fund is pledging to spend up to $10 million a year on the initiative, named after the pseudonym Malala used as an anonymous blogger back when she was just a girl.

Photographed by Emily Berl.
Malala, 19, will spend the summer on the road before heading to college in the fall.

Both projects are also a chance for the Fund to embrace the next wave of activists. Malala is no longer a child struggling to get a basic education. Soon, she’ll be a college-educated twentysomething continuing to fight for that right on behalf of the next generation of girls. Malala’s picture is notably absent from the Gulmakai launch page. In its place are members of what the Fund is calling its inaugural class of “champions,” young organizers hailing from places like Lebanon, Nigeria, and Malala’s native Pakistan. “Over the next several years, we expect to see the work of these remarkable women and men result in substantial gains for girls’ education,” the page reads.

“I don’t think Malala is ever not going to be the most visible global presence in the fight for girls' education,” says Taylor Royle, the Malala Fund communications director. But the hope, Royle says, is that she won’t be the only one: “We want to meet the next generation of leaders who are coming up behind Malala,” she says.

This effort is underway during the April 11 visit to Lancaster. Minutes after speaking to a sold-out breakfast of 200-plus, Malala is sitting in a sparse conference room where a small group of teenage immigrants and refugees are sharing their stories.

It’s remarkable because she now gets to choose who she is, what she does next. She’ll always be guided by a core sense of impact and mission — how she does it may evolve.
Shiza Shahid, Malala Fund cofounder and former CEO.

“There’s a lot of struggle,” explains Marie Claire, a refugee from Central Africa. “We can’t do what other kids can do. You can’t type the way other kids can.”

Marie Claire runs her fingers back and forth beneath the edge of the wooden table. She’s 20, and, like Malala, a survivor of unimaginable trauma. Her family fled their home in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo when she was just a girl. They moved to Zambia, but things got even worse. She didn’t know the language and couldn’t go to school. One night, a group of attackers broke into their home and murdered her mother in front of her eyes. Her dad was severely beaten, but he survived. “We thought they were both dead. But God is good,”she says. They moved again. Marie Claire, who had long dreamed of moving to the United States, started to lose hope.

In 2015, word arrived they would be coming to America after all. Marie Claire enrolled in Lancaster’s local high school. She graduated last year and got into college. The prospect of taking out loans — something she had never even considered before — hasn’t deterred her. Next to Marie Claire, another local teen refugee is sobbing. She too, begins to cry, “I will be a nurse one day.”

Photographed by Emily Berl.
Malala addresses a sold-out crowd at a Church World Service Refugee Appreciation Breakfast.

Malala is sitting at the head of the table, listening rapt. In small groups, she has a tendency to try to let her gregarious and joke-cracking dad, Ziauddin, do the talking. But when a stranger opens up in her presence — something that happens a lot — Malala gives them her full attention (during an earlier breakfast, she was so engrossed by a panel of refugee speakers that she barely touched her orange juice and pastry).

"You have a very strong message,” she tells the refugees. “And I know you’ve inspired many, including me.” Hours (and several appearances) later, Marie Claire’s story is still on Malala’s mind. During our interview, she brings it up twice in the span of 20 minutes.

“The girl who lost her mother, she's still dreaming to go to university, get a higher education, become a nurse, and help her community,” Malala says. “She still has hope, and that gives me hope as well, to believe the future is positive.”

Within two weeks, Marie Claire’s story will be featured on the Malala Fund blog.

“Marie Claire shares her story because she hopes it will empower other girls,” it reads. “Her advice: ‘Your past shouldn’t stop you from moving forward and trying to change the world.’”

Photographed by Emily Berl.
Malala enjoys lunch with refugee resettlement workers at Lancaster's Himalayan Curry and Grill.

Meanwhile, school is never far from Malala’s mind. Later in the day, we join refugee resettlement workers with Church World Service and other community leaders for dumplings and curry at a restaurant owned by a family from Nepal. In between sips of a mango lassi, Malala eagerly tells the table about an assignment related to Brexit. Midway through the lunch, someone hands her a homemade quilt as a token of gratitude. Malala smiles: “I’ll bring it to university!”

There is a serene aura about her. Even after all that’s happened — the shooting, the separation from friends back home, the ongoing threats against her life — she’s not angry or afraid. “I have seen the worst I could,” she says, matter-of-factly. “This is reality.”

But beneath her cool and mature veneer are flashes of Malala the Every Teen. She touts steps tracked with her black FitBit (she logged a whopping 18,700 at the UN the day before), pops Pringles in the back of her crew’s black Mercedes van, and binges on her favorite show, the British version of The Apprentice (“Not the Trump one,” she adds with a smile). She wears a brightly colored tunic and headscarf. Nude peep-toe heels peek out from the crisp white pants; onstage at the high school, she cracks a joke about needing them to reach a mic. Those big talks don’t bother her, by the way, but speaking in class does. She gets so nervous that she shakes. “I respect my teachers a lot,” she explains. “And in school you always want to be the perfect one, the best one. There's a lot of pressure.”

In school you always want to be the perfect one, the best one. There's a lot of pressure.
Malala Yousafzai

Back home in England, Malala bickers with her loving but occasionally annoying younger brothers. “When I go to their rooms, they just tell me to get lost,” she says. Ziauddin corroborates this. “We have a very normal lifestyle; they fight with each other,” he says. “Yesterday, when she was designated as the youngest-ever Peace Messenger for the UN, I whispered in her ear that now we will have peace in our home.”

Malala's A-level exams start this month, and she graduates in early July. She lights up as she talks about entering “a new phase of life where you're not living with your family anymore.”

“You are managing and organizing everything on your own: from your breakfast to what to wear, who to meet, what time to go to bed,” she says. “I think it's quite exciting.”

Oxford is just an hour away from her home in Birmingham, but the entire family is bracing for big changes as their firstborn readies to leave the nest. Malala is sitting for a photo shoot at the end of her visit to the high school. She leans against a table, tilting her chin up as she smiles and sets her gaze beyond the camera. The scene is reminiscent of a senior portrait. Across the room, Ziauddin reflects on the tectonic shift to come.

“After this trauma, we have been together always, we depend on each other too much,” he says. There’s a softness in his typically effusive and upbeat tone. “It will be hard, but you have to do it. She has to live her life.”

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