Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, author and advocate for educating all children, already this week has been named the United Nations Messenger of Peace. Wednesday, she will be in Ottawa, visiting with the Canadian Parliament and receiving an honorary Canadian citizenship.
Tuesday, she was in Lancaster — not to receive an honor but, in effect, to offer one.
“I am here to salute you for what you do,” Yousafzai told an audience of about 300 at Church World Service Lancaster’s Community Appreciation Breakfast. “(Lancaster) is the refugee capital of America.”
2017 marks the 30th year of formal Church World Service refugee resettlement efforts in Lancaster, but the area’s history of welcoming religious and political refugees goes back much further.
The milestone set the theme of the breakfast, honoring refugee youth "for their strength in changing the dialogue around refugees and immigration," said Stephanie Gromek, Church World Service community resource coordinator.
Sparked by a message sent earlier this year to her foundation’s website (malala.org) by Millersville University adjunct professor Matt Johnson, Yousafzai spent much of Tuesday morning and afternoon here, leaving the Church World Service event at Westminster Presbyterian Church to visit with an assembly of students and community members at J.P. McCaskey High School, make a brief stop at Central Market and then lunch with Church World Service staff and guests at Himalayan Curry & Grill.
Who is Malala?
Yousafzai, 19, rose to prominence as a young teen in Pakistan as a blogger and advocate for educating girls. Nominated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the International Children's Peace Prize, she was severely injured in a October 2012, assassination attempt by the Taliban. A year later, Malala and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, co-founded the Malala Fund. Its goal, according to the organization's website, is "to bring awareness to the social and economic impact of girls' education and to empower girls to raise their voices, to unlock their potential and to demand change."
With Kailash Satyarthi of India, Yousafzai in 2014 was co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, for her work on behalf of children in the areas of education, child labor and slavery.
Visit to Lancaster
During her quick visit to Lancaster, what did Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai experience?
Inspired by January's Concert for Refugees at Tellus360, a downtown rally in support of refugees and an essay on Malala written by his 13-year-old stepson Lucas, Johnson said he decided to message Yousafzai’s website to share Lancaster’s history of welcoming refugees.
“I asked if she would pay a visit to our community to galvanize our already huge stand behind refugees,” said Johnson, who’s running for Lancaster City Council. “I assumed I would get a form letter and that would be it."
Instead, Johnson was contacted in March and told that Yousafzai would be willing to attend.
"Her point person … I suppose, started to really warm to the idea of (Malala) going to a place that has been so accepting, given that the rest of the world is unsure about what to think of our historical kindness and tolerance," Johnson said.
And that tradition, Yousafzai told audiences at both the Church World Service event and McCaskey, is indeed what convinced her to schedule her visit.
“This place,” she told the Church World Service audience, “is a clear example to the world of what it means to live together, what is this idea of community."
It is not like this everywhere, she told a rapt group of about 800 McCaskey students and 300 community members later Tuesday morning during a surprise assembly at McCaskey. The real purpose of the assembly, as with all of Yousafzai’s Lancaster appearances, was kept secret for security reasons.
Yousafzai strolled back and forth across the auditorium stage Tuesday morning, a large image of the cover of her book, “I Am Malala,” projected on a screen behind her. She spoke to the students about the importance of education, of speaking up and of persisting.
Yousafzai and her family moved to England for specialized medical treatment after she was shot in 2012, and now live in England full time. The Taliban still considers her a target and, she said, “I have never seen my home again after that attack.”
Her message to her fellow teens, she said, is simple:
“I am hopeful that you will be helping each other, helping humanity.”
To those who, like her, have had to move away from their homelands for safety, Yousafzai says, mixing with their new communities “helps you learn more, helps you understand more ... but you need to be yourself, and believe in yourself.”