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TEDx event shines light on refugee women and empowerment

The UN Refugee Agency
07 Dec 2018, 05:57 GMT+10

GENEVA - When her family was uprooted by war, the world saw Syrian student Maya Ghazal as a refugee. But she saw herself as something different: a pilot in the making.

"Not only did I want to study aviation because it fascinated me ... I wanted to prove people wrong. I wanted to be that person that bucks the trend," she said.

"The refugee becoming a pilot after being rejected from schools, the person who was once looked at as a burden."

Maya was among 11 speakers at TEDxPlaceDesNationsWomen in Geneva, addressing the theme of "empowerment" - particularly women's empowerment and gender equality.

The 19-year-old Syrian arrived in the UK from Damascus, via family visa reunion three years ago.

She told how she overcame language difficulties, a spate of college rejections and gender stereotypes, to win a place at Brunel University London, for a course in aviation engineering with pilot studies.

"I am truly determined. To challenge every difficulty. Every stereotype. And to encourage others to do the same and stand up for themselves and what they believe in, regardless and no matter at what. To show that everything is possible as long as you believe in yourself and your abilities," she said.

Maya is already one in a hundred. Just one per cent of refugees globally are enrolled in college or university, compared to about a third of young people of college age.

She used the Geneva event to call for the expansion of scholarships and access to university to "give refugees the ability to study with the same determination that I have."

With the momentum created by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, 2018 has become a milestone year for women's empowerment.

The speakers at the event covered a wide range of issues including nuclear disarmament, domestic workers' rights, acquiring digital skills, female genital mutilation and statelessness. But all shared a common theme: when women are empowered, they can do great things for their communities and society as a whole.

See also: Brazil makes dream of belonging come true for stateless activist

In her address, statelessness activist Maha Mamo told how she was born in Lebanon in 1988 to Syrian parents, but never gained citizenship due to a web of restrictive laws and practices on civil registration and nationality in the two countries she had ties to.

After 30 years living in the shadows without any documentation, she gained Brazilian nationality - and a passport - in October. While getting a passport is a "technicality" for most, for Maha it was a pivotal moment.

"For me, it was life. It was a sign that I belong somewhere. You know why? Because I've lived my entire life as a stateless person," she said.

She told the forum about the decades she spent living on the margins, unable to study, travel, work, access healthcare or even buy a SIM card for a mobile phone.

But since relocating to Brazil five years ago -- under a special visa programme for survivors of Syria's civil war -- she was able to apply for asylum and obtained her first-ever residency document in 2016.

"I got the right to live, to work, to dream, to believe, to have a bank account, and to have all the basic rights that I never had."

Maha has since lent her voice to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency's #IBELONG campaign to end statelessness, which blights the lives of millions of people worldwide.

"We need to change discrimination in the law ... because everyone has the right to belong," she said, flourishing her new passport. "Today I am Brazilian. Today I belong. And everyone has the right to belong."

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