Syrian teen pleads for ‘a chance’

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Mohamad al-Jounde celebrates after receiving the International Children’s Peace Prize from Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai. ANP/AFP

THE HAGUE (AFP) – A Syrian teenager made a strong plea on Monday for the world to give refugees fleeing his country’s war an opportunity, as he received the prestigious International Children’s Peace Prize in The Hague.

“We just want people to give us a chance to prove ourselves,” Mohamad al-Jounde said.

“I can promise you, we are people just like them, we live in the same world,” Jounde said, as he was handed the award at a gala ceremony in a medieval hall in the Dutch capital.

The 16-year-old’s words came after yet another wave of Syrian air strikes killed at least 25 civilians and wounded dozens across the besieged rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus on Sunday, a Britain-based monitor said.

More than 340,000 people have died in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 and more than five million people have fled, according to the UN refugee agency.

Many refugees, including 2.5 million children, are now in camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere.

“Mohamad receives the award for his tireless efforts to ensure the rights of Syrian refugee children,” the KidsRights Foundation, which organises the prize, said.

Despite being a refugee himself, the energetic boy and his family built a school now housing 200 children in a refugee camp in Lebanon where he taught maths, English and his passion, photography.

“As Mohamad knows, Syria’s future depends on its children and their future depends on education,” said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, who presented Jounde with the KidsRights prize.

“Despite all they have personally suffered, Mohamad and his family have helped many children to go to school,” she said.

Jounde said it was especially photography that helped children deal with the terrible experiences they had endured.

“It’s often only through their pictures that we can really see who these children really are, as they don’t trust anybody,” he said.

After the worst migrant crisis in Europe since World War II peaked in 2015, as well as a string of jihadist attacks, refugees and migrants have faced a growing backlash in recent months.

“My message to people who don’t want refugees to be there is we didn’t want to come either. But that’s what war does,” said Jounde, who now lives in Sweden with his mother and father but has an older sister still trapped in Lebanon.

“Start dealing with us as normal people, not as refugees or immigrants,” he said. KidsRights has awarded the prize annually for the past 13 years “to a child who fights courageously for children’s rights.”

It also includes a €100,000 ($118,000) investment for projects in the winner’s home country.

Past winners include Yousafzai, a Pakistani education campaigner and the prize’s first recipient, and Nkosi Johnson, a South African boy who shone a light on the plight of children with HIV/AIDS.

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