Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady, Meryl Streep, and Freido Pinto in a Let Girls Learn Conversation with Girl Students in Marrakech, Morocco

June 28, 2016

MS. SESAY: Mrs. Obama, it's such an honor to be here with you today, and to be here with these amazing trailblazers, brought together by your Let Girls Learn initiative. Thank you for the invitation.

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you, Isha. And thank you all. I am beyond excited to be here with all of you. I have read so much about you. I know your stories, I know your challenges, but, more importantly, I know your triumphs. And I'm so excited to be able to bring a piece of the world here to hear your stories.

As you may know, this is the second leg of a three-country tour that I'm on. I just flew in last night from Liberia, and we had an amazing day there with a tremendous group of young women. And Freida did a phenomenal job in moderating a conversation that we had there. So I'm looking forward to adding your voices to this conversation. And we're doing it in a way where we want to share this conversation with young girls around the world, particularly in the United States. They're following this tour because, like me, they are outraged at the notion that there are 62 million girls worldwide who are not in school.

And the truth is, is that the reasons why girls aren't being educated are many and varied. There's no one reason. It varies from community, from society. There are cultural norms that play a role. There are resources that play a role.

But we are all coming together, and we will come together as a group of women, to tackle this issue. And in many ways, it's going to start with your generation. So I am proud of you all. I'm excited to hear from you. And I look forward to answering your questions and hearing more from you.

So don't be shy. The cameras can be daunting, even for the best of us. But we're among friends, so block them out and pretend like it's just us, just us girls talking. (Laughter.) So thank you all so much. (Applause.)

MS. SESAY: So you heard Mrs. Obama say it's just us girls,

right? This is like a hang-out session. This is a really cool hang-out session with Mrs. Obama and Meryl and Freida. And for me personally, I'm here -- and Karima told you I'm here because Mrs. Obama asked me, and also because I've covered these issues not just as a journalist, but as someone who comes from a country like Sierra Leone. I don't know whether many of you know it, it's in West Africa. It's one of the poorest countries in the world. Girls there face tremendous hardships to get into school. My parents came from very humble beginnings. My mother comes from a Muslim family, there were many wives and that caused problems for her to get an education. But she was educated, and so was I.

So I'm an example of transformative power of education. I'm an example of what education can do, and that's why I'm here. And I also just want Meryl and Freida to also talk a little bit about why they joined us. Because this conversation today is about the challenges you're facing -- the challenges to get an education, some of those barriers, how you're overcoming them, and what your hopes and dreams are for the future. Really want to get a sense of your hopes, your dreams, who your role models are, and just what gives you the strength to keep going. Because you are all trailblazers.

So you now know why I'm here. I want to hand it over to Freida so she can say a little bit about why she's here and what she's going to bring to this conversation as we talk about some of those things.


MS. PINTO: Thank you, Isha. Marhaba. Am I saying it right? (Laughter.) Kefalek. (Laughter.) So I do remember a little bit of my Arabic. (Laughter.)

Girls, literally the only reason why I'm here is to learn more from you. I have a passion, and my passion goes beyond what I do for my day job, which is acting and producing and being part of the film world. I love what I do. I absolutely love what I do. And that start that I got in 2008 put my on a platform, where I realized that the education that my parents gave me -- I also come from a very simple, middle-class family, and my parents worked really, really hard to put me in the best possible school, the best possible college, get the best education they could afford.

And given all that they've put into me, and the investment in this girl child and my older sister -- when I realized that my first film put me on this platform that gave me this voice -- and I was already doing, with the help of my mom, who was also a teacher -- I was already doing a lot of work with her at the school level, especially with girls in India -- that's where I come from -- who couldn't get a basic education. And I realized this voice that I got suddenly started becoming really powerful. I was setting somewhat of a trend.

And of course I learned that on a thing like the red carpet, you wear the color blue and then everybody is like "Blue is the new in color." (Laughter.) And then I realized, what if I said education for girls is the new best thing? What would happen with that?

So with the help of my team, I told them, I want to find the right organizations, the right kind of people -- I have a lot to learn. I have a lot to learn from people like Meryl Streep, Isha, and Mrs. Obama. So what a privilege for me to even be sitting with them and learning firsthand, but I also have a lot to learn from girls like you. I want to be the storyteller, a storyteller who's responsible, who is enthusiastic, and who the people back there will listen and then take the story to the rest of the world, to the United States, to back home in India.

So, yeah, really I'm here to learn from you and hopefully take in whatever I can and imbibe in the projects that we do from now on. So thank you very much for giving this opportunity. And thank you so much, Mrs. Obama. (Applause.)

MS. SESAY: Thank you, Freida. And, Meryl, the same question to you: Why did you drop everything to be here for this?

MS. STREEP: I think that if Mrs. Obama asked me to road trip anywhere in the world -- (laughter) -- I would say, "I'm there in five minutes." But it was especially interesting to me to come to Morocco, because I'm aware that here in this country, there is a special push in order to enable girls beyond primary level education to go on to secondary school, to university. And I want to help that happen all over the world.

I work with a lot of different organizations to that end. But I haven't really traveled and gone into homes and spoken to individuals. Every single person's story is different. And it's been exhilarating, and moving, and funny, and fun to be here on the ground. I am the Moroccan team here. (Laughter.) This is the Liberia team. (Laughter.) But I've been holding down the fort, couldn't wait for you to come and experience it.

MRS. OBAMA: You've been doing a phenomenal job. I've heard all about it. I've gotten reports in from the ground. (Laughter.) You're doing a great job.

MS. STREEP: But I'm also someone who -- I'm older than everybody else. I'm not a grandmother yet --

MRS. OBAMA: Darn. (Laughter.)

MS. SESAY: In time, in time.

MS. STREEP: But I'm hoping, in time. But I grew up at a time in the United States when -- neither of my parents graduated from university. My father was in college but had to drop out because of the Depression, they lost all their money. And then in -- my mother also was never able to go to university because it was too expensive, no one had any money. So I'm the first. And it was -- they were very, very proud of me. And I have two little brothers.

But after the war, after the great World War, an enormous push from the American government built thousands of schools. It was a priority. And my father used to complain that the taxes were too high, but he never complained that the schools weren't good enough because the schools were wonderful, and I'm a product of that event. And I want to help. I know there's so much work being done by the Moroccan government with the help of USAID, Let Girls Learn, so many NGOs, Peace Corps. And I just want to be here to encourage that, because I wouldn't sit in this chair without my free education and the help with loans that I got right through my graduate degree.

So I'm very happy to be -- and I'd like to say that -- to really let you start to speak. Because your stories are more interesting than a girl from New Jersey. So I'd like to turn it over to you, Karima. Karima has a particular story, and it's different from everybody else but I'd like you to talk a little bit about that.

KARIMA: Thank you so much. So hello, everyone. I'm Karima Sisett (ph.) First of all, I'm so happy to be among such inspirational ladies. It's a great honor -- and to be with you girls.

My story starts -- I grew up in a very small town called Ouarzazate, four hours away from here. The support system in my family was really amazing. My parents always supported education. I grew up in a family where expectations were high. My brother graduated from high school with honors, and he went to university. So I thought that was it, that's the end of it; so my parents got their first born, he's a male, and he went to university so they achieved their dream, that's it.

But that wasn't the case. I was wrong. They encouraged me to do the same as he did, if not better. So it was really good. My father always said, as long as you're living just keep filling your brain with knowledge. And my mother wanted me to just have all the opportunity she never had the chance to have because she didn't have the right people around here or the tools to help her get the education she wanted.

But the struggle started when I went to high school. And I chose science and technology of electricity as a specialty, which is a domain where males are dominating. And you can imagine that in a classroom, we only have seven girls out of 30 students. So the struggle began there, the stereotypes -- "you're a girl, what are you doing between machines and wires, you're not supposed to be here." Or when the teacher is talking about motorcycles or -- the system, we don't understand that but boys are very familiar with it.

But I watched a video of yours talking about the -- "Best Story Ever," and how you got the audition for the movie, and you said that perseverance is the most important thing to achieve what you want. And that's something I really liked, because I insisted on going and on studying and making myself better, and having my voice heard between those males. And I did that. I broke the chain. Like previous years, boys always come on top, and this year I came on top. (Applause.)

And throughout high school, I went to exchange program Tech-Girls, which is a program run by the U.S. Department of State. That program was a beautiful experience. It allowed me to meet women -- inspirational women like you working in the STEM field in technology. And I had the opportunity to do a week of coding, Java, and it was really fun and I met so many amazing people. And they opened my eyes on a lot of opportunities and careers in the STEM field.

So overall, if you have -- the people who are surrounding you are very positive and you have the tools and you have the perseverance, as you said, and the good supportive system, as we talked about yesterday, and you have the will, you will achieve what you want to do.

And this is not the end. I'm not going to stop right here. I mean, I'm going to university after -- I just graduated from high school, by the way, and I'm going to university --

MRS. OBAMA: Congratulations.

KARIMA: Thank you. And when I get a good career, I'm going to help all of the girls in Morocco and all around the world to just let their dreams go and just to dream bigger, and to achieve what they want. And thank you all. (Applause.)

MS. SESAY: Karima, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing that story of inspiration. It's so important. And you touched on something that I want us to talk about. You touched on the importance of having people around you to encourage you, to support you, to tell you to walk down that path, whatever that path may be. Some people don't have that. Some girls don't have those supportive people. In some cases, there are -- it's a barrier. It's effectively a barrier to getting an education or staying in school -- social attitudes, cultural attitudes where some people feel that girls shouldn't be educated in the first place, or that they should just do a little bit of learning and then drop out. It's a barrier that some of you here have faced. It's certainly a barrier that girls around the world encounter.

So you have those kinds of barriers. You also have physical barriers. You have the barriers such as schools being far away, so you can't get there. You want to go to school, but they're just too far away, and your families don't want you to make that kind of journey, right? There are also challenges like schools that don't have adequate bathroom facilities. That's also a barrier.

So there are different kinds of barriers that some of you here have faced and know personally, and I'd just like us to talk a little bit about that, where you have encountered those kinds of challenges. I know, Fusia (ph), you have a story that you'd like to share about overcoming challenges. And that's the key, though, that I want us to focus on -- there are challenges, but you're proof of overcoming them.

Q: Yes. First of all, I'm glad to be here in front of your beautiful faces. It's like a dream come true. And I'm so happy to be here with you and with Mrs. Obama. And actually, okay -- my name is Fusia, Fusia Turkartoum (ph) -- a small village far away with -- 60 kilometers from Marrakech. So at the beginning, I had the first -- the primary school at my village. When I finished the primary school, I had to move to the other village to -- the secondary school. And the challenges began there.

So my family were against the idea, so they said you have to stay home, no more classes, no more school. So it was really hard for me. But with perseverance, as my friend said, with the -- I said, no, I have to study, why not, why should I stay home, I have to go and get -- study. Education is everything. And I don't know where the power comes from at that time, 12 years old, and I was saying so big words -- I want to study, I want to do this and this and this.

So they let me at the end. I joined the secondary school. I was the first female from that place to join this secondary school, and I was the only one. I have to go to the secondary school, seven kilometers going and seven kilometers going back home. When I get three years of secondary school, going and coming back to home with seven kilometers, then I have to join the high school. Then it was better. It was better than secondary, because I joined the Dar Taliba there in Touama. And it was really awesome. It was cool, even if it was a little bit hard from the very beginning. But I enjoyed it, and I was studying. And they get -- to study. So easily I get the first marks with honor in my first year, second year and third year. (Applause.)

I graduated from baccalaureate with honors, and then I joined the university. When I get my baccalaureate, I was not planning for university. My plans were so big, but I couldn't achieve them. My family couldn't support to let me go to Rabat to apply for journalism or for something else. So I have to -- like it was the last chance to come back to Marrakech and to join university. At the beginning I was confused about French or English. Then just English -- something pushes me to learn English. Then I started study in -- at university. I'm now about to graduate. My defense is Thursday.


Q: Yeah. And I'm still young and I'm just

MRS. OBAMA: Yes, she is.

Q: Yeah. And I'm learning also some Japanese. I have a little -- in Japanese. And I would like to carry on studying more languages. I would like to be a polyglot and a linguist. (Applause.)

MS. SESAY: You're such an inspiration. Congratulations on all you've achieved so far. And it's not the end, it's just the beginning for you. I know that. And I also know you have a question for Freida that you wanted to ask.

Q: Oh, yeah. My question for you, Freida, is, you have advocated for girls' education, and do you face some challenges during your education? And so please I would like to know those challenges. And I would like you to give us advice so as to defend those people who are -- to defend this issue with people who are against girls' education. And thank you so much.

MS. PINTO: Thank you. Thank you so much for your story. It's so inspirational. No, I had no challenges. So you might wonder what it is that I'm doing here, right? I had absolutely nothing. My parents gave me whatever I wanted, and in some ways, I think I kind of was a little spoiled, you know? I asked for -- I want a new keyboard, and they would get me a keyboard because they just wanted me to learn. And whatever I could imbibe and just take in, they just wanted me to have everything. And I know it was really difficult for them because my older sister would always tell me, you're so spoiled, you get -- whatever you ask for, Dad give it to you.

But I'll tell you what happened. I was in -- probably 12 years old -- 10 years old, actually. I was younger, I was in the fifth grade. And my mom is a teacher -- was a teacher, like I told you. And we were going in an auto-rickshaw, a tuk-tuk, as you call it, to her school. I think it was, like, science day -- I didn't go to her school, by the way. She did not want me to be in her school. I went to a different school.

And while we were on our way, there was -- my mom always talked about "education is very important," and my grandmother said the same thing, and "it's every child's fundamental right." And she would use these big words with me and I would keep repeating them, and I understood them. And then there was this girl who came to one of the traffic lights begging for money. And she was younger than I was; she was probably 6 or 7 years old, and should have been in school. And I befriended here; her name was Pinky. And as Pinky left, I looked at my mom and I said, you lied to me, you said education is every child's basic right, I asked if she went to school and she said no. She took some chocolates and -- my parents never encouraged me to give money -- she took some chocolates from me and she ran away. I said, you lied to me. And my mom said, no, I didn't lie to you, I am sending you to school. I said, yes, I'm going to school, but what about her.

And my mom was so dumbfounded by this "you lied to me" accusation. So she said to me, you know what, I think it's time to share the truth with you about this unequal world. And there are many girls in India -- many boys and girls in India, I must say, who don't go to school. And they can't -- either their parents can't afford it, or girls are married off very young. And she was simplifying this as much as she could for a 10 year old.

And I told her at that point in time, I don't think it's fair and I want to do something, I want you to do something, Mom. And my mom said, I have to continue doing this job so I can make enough money to continue sending you to school, but why don't you complete your education and figure out what you want to do to help these girls?

So I think growing up in India and being exposed to the inequality of it all and seeing it day in and day out, and having a lot of friends -- I had a lot of friends who could not even afford their school fees, so a bunch of our families would get together and sponsor students as well. I think seeing that and knowing that their challenges were there, they existed, but seeing the passion in them -- and sometimes it would -- I would have to do my own little reality check. I'm complaining about every little thing -- about my heavy backpack, and the amount of homework I have. But these kids who have nothing, who burn their chimney oils not even having light and fans, or the luxury of just being -- having all the facilities that one has to have a great education. They really worked very hard. And more often than never, they were always on top of the class. I was not always there, but I tried my best.

And I think that's what really pushed me to take this on quite seriously. And I think your second question was what was the --

MS. SESAY: It was advice, what advice would you give?

MS. PINTO: To girls.

MS. SESAY: To girls who have to -- who are taking on these -- who are facing these kinds of barriers.

MRS. OBAMA: And what kinds of things can we tell them to help them defend against those who think that girls' education isn't important? Because there are plenty of facts that back up the notion.

MS. PINTO: You know, this is -- knowing how complex the situation is, and having been on the ground where -- we've actually witnessed this girl who did not actually want to get married, and she was really, really young. She was like, no, I want to finish my school but my parents want to get me married. And it's hard, because sometimes we're sitting on the periphery thinking we can just go in and interfere in their family matters and say, no, you can't do that.

I think it's important -- and this is my practical advice -- is to find organizations and groups of people who work towards making sure that girls complete their education, work on the ground in those local communities. It's important for girls to be able to stand their ground. It's important for you to not be shy to raise your voices.

For me it came -- I was a very boisterous child. I had to be told to like, okay, now, calm down. (Laughter.) But there were many girls who did not have that, they were really shy. There's no time to be shy today. You have to speak up. Because if you don't speak up, there is someone else -- and more often than ever, it's a man -- who will speak up in place of you. And you don't want that to happen.

So I feel it's important to be able to let your voice from within just come out and say no. And one thing that actually works, which I noticed in Rajasthan, is girls supporting girls. There is nothing like unity. When girls come together knowing that a certain girl is -- by the way, the way this girl's marriage got averted was because a group of her girlfriends came together and went to her parents and protested, saying, she's really bright in school, you can't do that, we're going to go to the local community and we're going to tell them what you're doing, we're going to go to the police. And it was really -- it was fun listening to their stories how they felt like crusaders of sorts. They felt like superheroes.

So I think band together. Don't feel this competition in a way, which -- healthy competition is good, but this competition that -- where one girl pulls another girl down, it's no good. It goes nowhere. So just band together. And I feel that the unity is going to make your voices even stronger.

MRS. OBAMA: And, Isha, I just want to make sure you all are equipped with the facts too. If there are people who come to you and say, why should we educate girls? Well, the health of any nation can be measured by the health of women in that society. Because women bear children. They raise the children. And if you look at women who are not educated in their countries, there are health outcomes that are negatively impacted: Higher infant mortality rates. Higher rates of HIV. They have obviously lower wages. And all of those conditions have an impact not just on that girl, but on her family, on that society, and eventually on the entire nation.

So what you want to say is that girls' education is important to all of us, which is why we're all here. Those 62 million girls who are not being educated around the world impact my life in Washington, D.C., in the United States of America. Because if we aren't empowering and providing the skills and the resources to half of our population, then we're not realizing our full potential as a society, as mankind. So we have to change those notions that girls are only valuable for their reproductive capacity, or their ability to do manual labor. We need every one of our citizens, boys and girls, to be educated and involved and empowered.

So those are facts that you can go to, to -- whether it's your parents or to people, leaders in your community to say that by helping me, I can help my entire society. And that's what -- a lot of times that makes people stand up and take notice. How can you be more valuable: Learning how to do laundry or washing dishes, or learning how to develop a business, and earning an income, and bringing those resources back home? And it's pushing those norms and traditions, getting parents and grandparents to think differently about what you can bring to the family.

There are real arguments to be made that the investment in an education now will reap benefits -- years to come. And that's what my family knew instinctively. My parents didn't go to university. We didn't have a lot of money. But one of the things that was a great fortune to me was that my parents understood the value of an education. And they fought for me, they sacrificed, they saved. I had an older brother who went ahead of me, but it wasn't enough that he went to one of the finest universities in the country. I saw him and I thought, well, if he can do it, I can do it, because I know I'm smarter than him. (Laughter.) And my parents believed in me too. And as a result, I went on to get my B.A., I went on to get my law degree. I've worked as a lawyer, as an associate dean. I've run a youth organization. I have brought more resources back to my family because of that investment.

And I'm sitting here with you today as the First Lady of the United States because of my education, and because of that preparation. So that's the vision you want to impart to those who might doubt you and those who might say, well, why should we invest? It is critical to the health of our nations. (Applause.)

MS. SESAY: Really beautifully said, Mrs. Obama. And, Meryl, before we move on I just wondered if you want to add anything to this. I know you've spent a couple of days here in Morocco, and just -- as you listened, and whether you have any advice when it comes to standing up to blaze your path to meet those challenges head on.

MS. STREEP: I'm not sure I have advice for the girls here. I think within each one of them, the young women that I have met have such strength of purpose, have such -- it all exists within each of you. It is already there. And you just have to reach in and access it.

I had a wonderful conversation yesterday with Fusia (ph.) And we were talking, and she -- I asked her -- because it was hard. She was speaking of Dar Taliba, which are these dorms and residence situations for young women who are obliged to leave home, even if they don't want to, but to get the education. And this system is pretty great -- crowded at the first; maybe you were in the room with four girls, and then just -- and crying -- she was the youngest one -- crying every night, wanting to go home. And I said, what was it that made you carry on, not give up? Because in my own life, I know that losing heart is the most dangerous thing. You can put any obstacle in front of me and I'll jump over it. But when you lose heart, you lose everything.

And so you take your strength from your friends, from that one person in your life who has said, you are capable.

MRS. OBAMA: And you only need on.

MS. SESAY: Absolutely.

MS. STREEP: You only need one.

MRS. OBAMA: You only need one person.

MS. SESAY: Let's talk about that.

MS. STREEP: That's Fusia's mother. So I wanted to just -- anyway. So we were talking about that.

MS. SESAY: And I think that's beautiful, because we've moved into what I want to talk about next, that source of inspiration -- role models. That person who speaks possibility into your life, who tells you there's absolutely nothing that stands in your way. I know all of you have someone, whether -- they may be in your family, they could be in the community. You might not even know them -- they're someone from afar, or a teacher.

For me, it was my mother. She always said, you can do anything. When I told her at 16 I wanted to leave home and be an actress, she said go for it. I didn't, thankfully for all of you. (Laughter.) You don't have to worry, I'll never turn up, Freida, at an audition. (Laughter.) But she's my role model. She's my source of inspiration.

So I would love for you to share with us who the people are that have helped you become the young women that you are who are pushing you forward. Would you share with us your source of inspiration?

Q: Sure. Good morning, ladies. I'm very glad to be here with you. Well, my name is Rihab Fusadress (ph.) I'm 17 years old, and I just got my baccalaureate. I just graduated from high school. Well, I'm supposed to talk about inspiration, how do I get inspiration. Actually, I have, like, a long list where I write down people's names who are making my life -- who are spreading, like, positive vibes and who are motivating me and inspiring me. Actually, I follow them on social media, and even -- I try to contact them if I can. My mom is on the list. My sisters are on the list. The First Lady is on the list. (Laughter.) I've been stalking you on social media. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: We're here. You don't have to look anymore. We're here. (Laughter.)

Q: Thank you. And actually, I saw a video of yours where you said that if you cared who thought you were cute when you were our age, you would never be the President of the United States' wife today. (Laughter.) And it inspired me, it really does. And I shared the video with my friends, and they were just like, girls, look, focus on education and forget about your appearances. And they were all inspired to, and I loved it.

And one of the best ways I got inspired from -- too is through exchange programs. I went to the Tech-Girls program too with Karima last summer. I think Karima said it all about Tech-Girls -- we met amazing women there in the United States. I met 26 amazing female leaders from all around the Middle East and North Africa who gave me positive vibes to help push me to empower girls around me. And I really, really appreciated the experience. And that's it with my story. Thank you so much for listening.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady, Meryl Streep, and Freido Pinto in a Let Girls Learn Conversation with Girl Students in Marrakech, Morocco Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320871

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