Growing up, my earliest and most impactful lesson did not come from a book or a documentary but from the lived reality of the 2003 Iraq War. From its controversial inception to its transformative end and enduring repercussions, this war wasn’t just a distant concept for me — it was an experience my family and I shared as five people among the millions who endured it. At the age of 2, I found myself immersed in discussions about politics, wartime expenditure and necessary foresight, all shaping my earliest understanding of the world and setting the stage for my advocacy journey.
Amid the turmoil of sectarian conflicts that erupted during the war, my family had to leave our homeland behind. As refugees, we found a new home in the United States, sacrificing familiarity for the promise of a better life and opportunity. My father, a passionate and skilled pediatric surgeon, relinquished his medical license. At the same time, my mother courageously uprooted her life, dedicating herself to nurturing her children without the support of an established community. Their sacrifices became my privilege, a testament to their unwavering commitment to my future.
Now, as a premed student, I am driven by a fervent desire to give back and uplift those who have been less advantaged. Looking at the communities around me, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when educational disparities were thrown into sharp relief, I realized that not every young mind has the opportunity to be cultivated and become a fertile ground for learning and growth. I opened my eyes to the learning inequalities that disproportionately affect marginalized communities, perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage.
This awareness fueled the founding of “Striking Summit,” a nonprofit organization committed to forging meaningful partnerships with youth centers in my local community in Georgia. Our mission extends beyond providing resources; we aim to cultivate a sense of belonging, offering tutoring sessions, career webinars, fundraising efforts and tailored support to address the unique needs of each community. We’ve successfully expanded to four cities nationwide and hope to continue growing and reaching more youth.
While my journey is deeply personal, my focus aligns seamlessly with the objectives of UNICEF USA. Advocating for children’s access to quality education is now a part of my identity. Each endeavor and partnership turns into a beacon of hope, a step towards a world where every child’s potential is nourished, regardless of their circumstances. For me, my parents’ selflessness will serve as my eternal inspiration to serve others. For future youth advocates, remember to know the reason driving your commitment, why you want to change someone else’s life for the better, and keep that source close to your heart.
In my high school’s UNICEF club, we were given a community and the tools to amplify our voices and passions for children’s rights. As club members, we were given resources that helped us better understand global youth issues. As club leaders, we learned how to mobilize youth in our community. As National Youth Council members, we used our platform to spread awareness and make tangible, lasting change by voicing our concerns to our legislators. Earlier this year, the Youth Council met with U.S. representatives and their offices to lobby for the MINDS Act (HR. 3988/S.2105), a bill designed to enhance mental health and psychological resources for children in U.S. foreign assistance programs.
No matter what cause you choose to champion as a youth advocate, one thing is evident: There is no singular path to becoming a youth advocate. No formula or guidebook is needed. What truly makes a youth advocate is something only you can find in yourself — passion and grit — from wherever that may come from for you. Start with the question: What do I want to change and why?
To any young person contemplating the role of a youth advocate, remember this: you possess the power to effect change. Age, as they say, is just a number. Embrace your unique strengths, find a cause that resonates deeply with your heart and fearlessly step forward as an advocate for what you believe in.
Together, as youth advocates, we wield a potent force for positive transformation in the world.
Gheed is a UNICEF Youth Advocate. Her term as a UNICEF USA National Youth Council member ended in July 2023.