How One Young Woman Fights Climate Change With A Smile

Meet Rahaf Abu Mayyaleh, a young Jordanian helping to build the youth climate movement in the Middle East.

11 mins read

Rahaf Abu Mayyaleh is quick to smile. When she does, her passion is evident. It lights up her whole face. The first time I met Abu Mayyaleh, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of one of these smiles, warm yet full of determination. The 21-year-old Jordanian activist happened to be sitting next to me at a high-level negotiation during the United Nations’ 2023 climate summit, COP28. 

At the first break in the discussions, which we had been silently observing from a row of chairs behind the massive U-shaped conference table, Abu Mayyaleh turned toward me. Her hand outstretched in greeting, she introduced herself. When I responded, she leaned closer. Lowering her voice just a touch, like I was about to be let in on a secret, she asked if it was my first time at COP, too. I nodded, and another smile flashed across her face. A sense of camaraderie bloomed between us. 

Art credit: Dominique Greene

Interactions like this one are commonplace for Abu Mayyaleh. Her bubbly personality is infused into all of her efforts, and she has the effect of making those who encounter her for the first time feel like they are meeting an old friend. 

Abu Mayyaleh brings that optimism to her climate activism, facing down some of the darkest challenges her generation faces with a smile. She has already made great strides in youth education and political activism, but as Abu Mayyaleh prepares to graduate college, she is ready to take her work — and warmth — to the next level.

Abu Mayyaleh became a youth activist when she was 12 years old, and has since worked to advance children’s issues in Jordan and beyond. Now studying biology at the University of Jordan in Amman, Abu Mayyaleh’s more recent activism has centered on combating climate change. 

“We have the responsibility to share the environmental challenges that are happening around Jordan,” Abu Mayyaleh said. Persistent droughts have caused more frequent water outages in the country, making access to water unreliable at times. Fluctuations in weather can cause hazards like landslides and flooding when storms do come. For the country’s children and young people, which together make up more than half of Jordan’s population, these climate impacts affect their ability to work, go to school, and participate in activities in their communities. This, Abu Mayyaleh said, is why she pursues activism. 

She is not alone: young people across Jordan are connected and plugged in to the efforts of the global climate movement. The climate change they experience in the region often acts as a catalyst, forcing them to grapple with the issue first-hand and then organize for change. 

“There is a trend with climate activism in Jordan,” Abu Mayyaleh told me. “Every youth wants to learn about it and wants to work on it.”

So far, the efforts of young activists like Abu Mayyaleh have proven successful. In 2022, Jordan signed on to the United Nations’ Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action to prioritize child and youth-centered policies on climate mitigation and adaptation. The following year, Abu Mayyaleh earned herself a seat at the table when Germany joined the treaty at COP28. At the signing ceremony, Abu Mayyaleh represented UNICEF’s Program for Youth Climate Action. 

Called “Sawn,” which means to protect or preserve in Arabic, the program launched in 2022 in collaboration with the Jordanian government. It provides young people from each Jordanian governorate with the training and skills needed to lead climate action projects in their communities and internationally. Abu Mayyaleh was the only female student to speak at the ceremony, a moment she said was a highlight of her activism journey. 

“It was a very beautiful experience. I don’t have any responsibilities and can’t make decisions with my own hands, but to have this opportunity to explain my experience as a youth in Jordan and the programs we are implementing, I felt very proud,” Abu Mayyaleh said. 

Closer to home, much of Abu Mayyaleh’s daily work centers around youth in her community. While at the University of Jordan, she founded the startup project 4Health to promote eco-friendly games for children ages two to 18. 

The inspiration behind the program came from a need for environmentally sustainable toys and games focused on hygiene in a country with a pollutive manufacturing industry. About 16.4% of Jordan’s greenhouse gas emissions currently come from the industrial processes sector. The country manufactures a variety of consumer goods, including textiles, which alone accounted for $1.9 billion dollars of exports in 2021. 

While air quality in Jordan is among the best in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, Abu Mayyaleh said the gasses emitted by factories around Amman can still be damaging to young people’s health. She uses her work with the 4Health project to link the health of people to the health of the planet. Activities made from environmentally-friendly materials introduce young people to different steps they can take to improve their personal health while respecting that of the Earth’s. As a certified health trainer, Abu Mayyaleh makes regular visits to under-resourced  youth centers in Amman and throughout the country to speak to groups of children and lead game sessions with them.

She laughed as she described her time spent at the Ben Youth Space in Amman, where she volunteers and plays with children. The two to five-year-olds she often spends time with do not have very long attention spans, she admitted. This can make it hard to find educational games that keep kids engaged while exposing them to climate change themes. 

“Each game, each activity, you have a target. So if the kid reaches the target, you know they’ve learned,” Abu Mayyaleh said. Then, with a smile herself, she added that her favorite part of each visit is when she sees the kids beaming up at her at the end of a session. This, she said, is how she knows her work has been meaningful for them. 

Abu Mayyaleh will finish her studies at the end of 2024. After school, she wants to expand the 4Health project to other parts of the MENA region. She said she also wants to focus on empowering women in the climate activism space. In Jordan, Abu Mayyaleh said that language can pose a barrier for her Arabic-speaking female peers to participate in international dialogues or attend global conferences. 

“There’s a lot of young women here who have knowledge and experiences, but they can’t share it because they don’t have the language, which is English,” she said. She plans to devote more of her time after graduation toward advancing the climate initiatives in Jordan to international audiences. 

At the end of our conversation, I asked Abu Mayyaleh what she wants a U.S. audience to know about her life and work in Jordan. After considering the question for a moment or two, she looked at me warmly. Her expression was reminiscent of when she had leaned in close to me at COP, in a way that declared sudden friendship.  

“Life in Jordan, I think, is very similar to life in America. But, we are a society of youth,” she said, reiterating the role young people can play in driving change. The median age in Jordan is 23, just two years older than Abu Mayyaleh is now. This gives a certain energy to the activism taking place there, letting young people take the lead in a way that is less common in other parts of the world. 

Amid success at home, Abu Mayyaleh keeps her focus on the bigger picture abroad. Climate change is a global issue, she said, and it will not be solved by one country alone. She is determined to keep making connections, becoming a fast friend to others as she works alongside young people from across the planet.

“We want to collaborate with climate activists in the U.S. and other places,” she said. “We want solutions in a global way. We want to work together so we have the power of the youth, together.”

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