2016-08-11 / Front Page

‘What Would You Say to a Terrorist?’

By Betsy Sherman Walker


Camrynn Marvelle, Malak Mohamed, Wendy Lopez, Thompson Middle School English and language arts teacher Lisa Olaynack, Michaela Davis, and Honezty Gonsalves hold copies of Malala's book, which were donated by Judy Crosby, owner of Island Books in Middletown. (Photo by Ryan Olaynack) Camrynn Marvelle, Malak Mohamed, Wendy Lopez, Thompson Middle School English and language arts teacher Lisa Olaynack, Michaela Davis, and Honezty Gonsalves hold copies of Malala's book, which were donated by Judy Crosby, owner of Island Books in Middletown. (Photo by Ryan Olaynack) Soon-to-be seventh-graders at Thompson Middle School, Camrynn Marvelle and Malak Mohamed are best friends. They share a lot and support each other’s dreams for the future – Camrynn is a musician and wants to be a public speaker; Malak is a dancer who wants to be a doctor and an activist.

In Lisa Olaynack’s sixth-grade English and language arts class, they also began to share the experience of seeing the world from a starkly different perspective. Last winter Olaynack introduced a section on human rights. It was then that the friends began to see the world through the eyes of Malala Yousafzai, the young woman from Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for her outspoken advocacy for educating young women.

On the evening of July 28, with three of their Thompson classmates, the two were able to share the experience of seeing Malala in person, when the 2014 Nobel Prize winner spoke at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. The five were going up with tickets they had won in an essay contest organized by Olaynack, who managed to get two each donated by the Newport Rotary, Portsmouth Abbey, and St. George’s School. The other three contest winners were Michaela Davis, Honezty Gonsalves, and Wendy Lopez.

The contest question: Write about what you learned from the film “He Named Me Malala” and how you would apply it to your community.

Both girls had spent the winter learning about the young woman who defied the Taliban. “I admired how she kept persevering and kept going,” Camrynn said, “even though she got shot. I was inspired by that. No matter how big the bully,” she added, “you never give up.”

Malak admired Malala’s “perspective about everything going on, about how women are treated, how she sees things.” A Muslim, Malak emigrated from Egypt with her family when she was five years old. If she could have asked Malala one thing, she said it would have been, “What would you say to a terrorist?”

And while they were not able to speak with her directly, when Malala addresses a crowd, she speaks – as she always does – to the hearts and minds of young women everywhere. Her message is universal and deeply personal, and she connects. What they all got to see that night was an intimate, human side of someone who, for this global sisterhood of young girls, is truly a hero.

“She was a lot shorter than I thought she’d be,” observed Camrynn, “and playful in person.” Malak said that “her height didn’t matter. Her voice was very strong.”

When asked what they would show Malala if she were ever to visit Newport, it became instantly clear they were proud of the city’s history of diversity and religious freedom. “If I had the time with her,” said Malak, “I would show her about the religious tolerance in Newport.” She was quick to add, revealing a level of experience many Newporters do not – nor will ever – have, “I would want her to see that I am still allowed into Touro Synagogue.”

Camrynn said she would “bring Malala to the Empire Tea Room on Bellevue and have a conversation with her, talk about what it’s like growing up in this beautiful city.”

Olaynack, “still in awe,” referred to Malala’s “big personality.” She had gained entree to a VIP reception beforehand, to which she had brought along a gift (a book, “A is for Activist”) from her class and thank you cards. In the receiving line, the wrapped present caught Malala’s eye. Pleased and curious, she asked, “Is that for me?” In a display of the grace that accompanies greatness, she then said, “I am honored.” And then, with a chuckle, “People don’t usually bring me gifts.” They spoke a bit longer, and in parting she leaned in close and told Olaynack, “You have the hardest job.”

But perhaps Malala’s greatest gift to the young girls around the world for whom she speaks – those denied an education – is that she represents one thing: a voice. And every time she is heard, whether by one or a roomful, the knowledge she imparts adds one more voice to the global chorus.

Five more voices now speak for them at Thompson Middle School.

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