How young newsmakers helped shape the world in 2013

BY Vanessa Dennis  January 9, 2014 at 3:37 PM EST

Pope Francis and NSA leaker Edward Snowden can argue over who rightly deserves the title “Person of the Year,” but many of the year’s big stories involved younger people.

From drone strikes and cutting edge medical research, to Hollywood talent and European immigration, youth from around the world challenged us to view their issues more compassionately and unite across ideological lines. We look back at some of the year’s top young newsmakers.

Malala Yousafzai

No other young person captured the world’s attention in 2013 like Malala Yousafzai.

The young Pakistani advocate for girls’ education made international headlines in 2012 when she was shot by the Taliban while on her way to school. After recovering from the injury, she showed that she would not be silenced by terrorist threats, and used her “second life” to take her message to the world stage.

“Today you can see that I’m alive,” said Yousafzai in February during her first interview since surviving a Taliban attack.

In July, Yousafzai celebrated her 16th birthday by delivering a speech at the United Nations, promoting universal mandatory education around the world as a way to improve the status of women.

“The extremists are afraid of books and pens,” she declared. “The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them…That is why they are blasting schools every day. Because they were and they are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that we will bring into our society.”

The U.N. designated Friday, July 12 as “Malala Day,” but the 16-year-old said it was a day for “every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.”

Jack Andraka

Cancer research is a daunting field of study. So when 15-year-old Jack Andraka developed a pancreatic cancer screening tool that is more than 90 percent accurate and costs only 3 cents, the world took notice.

After a family friend passed away from pancreatic cancer, Andraka decided to learn more about the deadly condition. “Armed with teenage optimism, I began reading everything I could online about pancreatic cancer and how it is detected,” he wrote in an editorial for PBS NewsHour Extra, the educational resource site for the NewsHour.

“Through my journey I learned that with the Internet anything is possible, and that it doesn’t matter what your age, gender or race is — it’s your ideas that count.”

BatKid

Thanks to BatKid, a.k.a. 5-year-old cancer patient Miles Scott, the streets of the “City by the Bay” were made safer on Nov. 15, with a little help from the city of San Francisco and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to children suffering from life-threatening illnesses.

Scott thought he would just be buying a Batman costume, his favorite superhero, during a trip into San Francisco. Instead, he was surprised by a police escort who took him on an adventure around town to capture notorious villains from the Batman comics.

Thousands of fans and volunteers lined the streets of the city to cheer BatKid on his mission, and millions more joined them via Twitter. Even President Barack Obama chimed in with support on Twitter, and recorded a Vine message congratulating him for saving Gotham.

Scott has been battling leukemia for most of his life, but his disease is now in remission and he is expected to live.

Quvenzhane Wallis

This year, Quvenzhané Wallis became the youngest actress ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as “Hushpuppy” in the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Born in Houma, La., Wallis was just 5 years old when she auditioned for “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. Since auditions for the role of Hushpuppy were only open to 6 to 9-year-olds, her mother lied on the initial paperwork to allow her daughter to audition. When director Benh Zeitlin saw her audition, he immediately recognized her as the best pick for the strong and independent young character.

Since then, Wallis also appeared alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brad Pitt in the critically acclaimed 2013 film “12 Years a Slave.”

Nabila Rehman

As the world celebrated Malala Yousafzai for standing up for girls’ rights in the face of Taliban attackers, another young Pakistani girl was testifying before the United States Congress on behalf of her grandmother, who had been killed in a U.S. drone attack.

Nabila Rehman had been working in a field with her 12-year-old brother Zubair, who also testified that day, and her grandmother Bibi when they heard the buzzing of drone above them.

“As I helped my grandma in the field, I could see and hear drone overhead but wasn’t worried because we’re not militants,” Zubair Rehman said. “I no longer like blue skies. In fact, I prefer gray skies. When sky brightens, drones return and we live in fear.”

“Everything was dark and I couldn’t see anything, but I heard a scream,” said Nabila Rehman. “I was very scared and all I could think of doing was just run.” Rehman also drew a picture of the drone attack and showed it during her testimony to illustrate her point.

“What did my grandmother do wrong?” she asked.

Leonarda Dibrani

Although she didn’t make front pages in the United States, 15-year-old Leonarda Dibrani, a Roma (also known as Gypsy) girl living in France, sparked mass protests when French police pulled over her school bus as her class was returning from a field trip, detained her and then deported her to Kosovo.

“I’m frightened, I don’t speak Albanian,” she told AFP news from the Kosovan town of Mitrovica. “My life is in France. I don’t want to go to school here because I don’t speak any of the local languages. I had freedom there. I do not want to stay here.”

The deportation sparked protests in Paris and around the country. Al Jazeera reported that French students have disrupted about 50 schools since the incident. The protesters demanded that Dibrani and others like her be allowed to return to France to continue their studies.

The case highlights the discrimination that Roma populations face within the European Union and conflict over immigration policies in Europe.

Maria, the Greek Roma girl

In another case involving Europe’s Roma population, Greek police charged a Roma family with abducting a blonde, blue-eyed girl (whose complexion was fairer than the rest of the family) who they claimed to have adopted from another Roma woman. Maria, as the girl was known, was removed from her home and tested for a DNA match to her parents.

Her biological mother, a Bulgarian Roma woman, stepped forward to claim Maria as her daughter, a claim verified by the DNA test. She said she had left her daughter with the couple in Greece because she was too poor to take her out of the country, but denies receiving money from the couple in exchange for Maria.

Besides highlighting immigration issues within the mobile Roma community, the case also sparked discussion about what family should look like, especially as interracial and blended families become more common.

Kid President

In early 2013, Kid President, a.k.a. 9-year-old Robby Novak released “A Pep Talk from Kid President to You.” His video went viral, racking up more than 30 million views and gaining some celebrity fans along the way.

Since then, President Obama collaborated with his kid “counterpart” for an interview and a promotional video for the White House Easter Egg Roll. Kid President also gave a TED Talk and interviewed notable figures as diverse as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Beyonce.

Sarah Murnaghan

Ten-year-old Sarah Murnaghan sparked a debate over American organ transplant rules after she was initially denied a life-saving lung transplant because of her age. By policy, children 12 and older receive priority to receive adult lungs.

Through a media campaign organized by her parents, a U.S. district judge temporarily changed national policy and ordered Sarah and another 11-year-old be placed at the top of the transplant list. Sarah received her first double lung transplant in June, but after it failed, she received a second, successful pair of lungs.

Sarah’s parents say they will continue to fight for children who are excluded from adult transplant lists because they are too young. But despite the positive result, many doctors are worried about the implications of the ruling.

“The size of the donor and of the recipient is critical. Lungs vary in size primarily according to height, gender and age. The courts are clearly poorly equipped to adjudicate this kind of decision,” Dr. Malcolm DeCamp of Northwestern Memorial Hospital told the Chicago Tribune.

Dr. Scott Halpern of the University of Pennsylvania was also concerned about the presence of media in making medical decisions. “People might rightly ask whether it’s fair for lungs to be allocated to people who can create the biggest media splash,” he told ABC News.