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Saving Syria-One Student at a Time

More than 9,000 kilometres away from the Middle East, Toronto philanthropist Leen Al Zaibak is helping Syrian youth stay in school.

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Saving Syria-One Student at a TimePhoto: Brooke Wedlock; Hair & Makeup: Ashley Downey/Dame

It was the first day of exams when the bombs dropped.

In January 2013, Enana Alassaf sat in a classroom below ground level, where daylight filtered in through small windows at the top of the walls. The 22-year-old, who was studying at Aleppo University to become a pharmacist, had been working on the paper in front of her for five minutes when she heard an engine roar above, extremely close by. She recognized the sound: an MiG government military plane. Identifying bombers was an unwanted skill she’d acquired living in Syria during a civil war, a place where a shell might fall from the sky on the walk to school and dogs could be seen rooting in a pile of burned bodies near her parents’ apartment.

The noise was deafening as the bomb exploded on the street outside. The building shook and glass rained down. Screams erupted. The invigilator told the students to keep calm and focus on their exams, as if playing normal would make it so.

Then the second bomb dropped.

In Canada, the following week, Leen Al Zaibak received a message from Alassaf, describing that morning’s terror. For about a year, Toronto-raised Al Zaibak had been mentoring Alassaf over Skype and email. They had met through an NGO made up of Syrian expatriates facilitating scholarships for their former compatriots around the world.

The organization, which Al Zaibak co-founded with five friends in 2011, is called Jusoor, the Arabic word for “bridges,” and aims to match Syrian youth seeking to study abroad with the 20 million expats already living elsewhere. Now that the conflict is in its fifth year, Jusoor’s goal is to ensure that young people whose lives have been upended by war don’t devolve into an uneducated “lost generation.” Since the uprising, at least 7.6 million Syrians have been displaced internally and close to 4.6 million have become refugees. Of the latter, more than half are children.

Al Zaibak had already been guiding Alassaf through the application process for master’s programs in the United Kingdom and Canada, discussing visas and scholarship options. But now the plan had a new urgency. More than 80 civilians died during the attacks on Aleppo University; an estimated 250,000 people have been killed in the region since 2011. Alassaf had survived the bombs, but the question had become, as it had for so many young Syrians: What next?

Three years later, on a January night in 2016, Al Zaibak shares Alassaf’s story over tea in a downtown Toronto hotel. Stylish in red lipstick and leather pants, the 32-year-old radiates warmth with an eye-locking, double-grasp handshake. Certain sentences come up again and again: “I’m so lucky” and “I’m so grateful,” she says-for this interview, for her Canadian education, for tea on a cold night.

When she talks about Syria, her perpetual smile dims and she grows sombre, slipping into a practised debate-club mode; she has a message and you will hear it. (When she was a kid, her parents’ friends would greet her with: “Hello, Prime Minister!”) This combination of self-effacement and keener determination is appealing,  and it works. But when Al Zaibak expels a full-throttle giggle-which happens frequently-you’re reminded that she has just exited her 20s and is brimming with the hopefulness that marks the millennial generation, in spite of the strife that has consumed the country she loves.

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Al Zaibak was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a middle child between an older brother and younger sister. Her parents had left Syria amid the instability of the Iran-Iraq War, but they were drawn to news reports of Pierre Trudeau’s multicultural promise. “Having your identity respected, living in dignity-that was Canada to us,” says Al Zaibak’s mother, Najla. Their application was accepted, and Al Zaibak’s family headed to Toronto when she was four years old.

The family was always financially comfortable-Al Zaibak’s father, Mohammad, has had a successful career in telecommunications. But like most newcomers, the Al Zaibaks landed in a city where they knew few people. Najla improved her English by reading the newspaper: first, just the headlines, and then the subheads, until she could finally understand whole articles.

Education was of prime importance in the family (studying: yes; TV: not so much), and Al Zaibak graduated from Havergal College, a prestigious private girls’ school. When asked if she ever felt caught between worlds as a hyphenate Syrian-Canadian, she looks flummoxed. “I never thought I had to choose between either identity. Growing up, I felt very uncomfortable entering a room that didn’t have a handful of nationalities, right? It’s so Toronto. It’s the Canadian mosaic that makes us unique in the world.”

She drops this kind of “Go, Canada!” statement easily and often. Detract­ors might be tempted to point out the cracks in this romantic version of our country: First Nations inequity, the child poverty rate-the list goes on. But it’s hard not to buy into Al Zaibak’s anything­ is ­possible ethos because she’s actively engaged in the labour required to improve lives. Most mornings, she’s up at 6:30 for her day job at Free the Children, the global youth charity where she is the senior manager of donor engagement. After work, she works again (but with­out pay), perhaps video conferenc­ing with other members of Jusoor or attending board meetings for Lifeline Syria, the Toronto organiza­tion founded last year through Ryer­son University that is matching 1,000 Syrian refugees with private sponsors in the GTA. She’s also hooked into the political scene, attending parties with heavyweights such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (she cam­paigned for him, too).

Al Zaibak is in constant contact with student mentees around the world-she works with two or three at any given time. Her social media presence is relentless: she’ll post a plea for an easy chair for a family of newcomers one moment and organ­ize a skating party for refugees the next. A friend, seeing her at a fund­raiser for the Royal Ontario Museum (where she’s a member of the Young Patrons Circle), once asked what she does for fun. “This is it,” she replied.

Her parents always tell her to take a break, turn off her phone. But, she says, “It’s hard to turn off in a crisis.”

For many Canadians, the reality of the Syrian conflict didn’t come into full relief until late last summer, when the body of three ­year­ old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach.

The ensuing groundswell of compassion has created a mostly wel­coming climate for the 25,000 Syrian refugees scheduled to arrive in Canada by the end of this year. Al Zaibak is the youngest board member of Lifeline Syria, and she has seen the kind of tangible altruism that greets newcomers: refugees have needs, and we meet them with food and shelter. But education is a harder sell and less immediately rewarding than donating a down jacket or cutting a cheque.

“The youth will be the post-conflict builders and leaders of Syria. The future is significantly less bright if they don’t have education,” says Al Zaibak.

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Today, Jusoor’s bridges have multiplied. Partnering with institutions around the world, including a consortium of 60 global universities, the group has provided Syrian students with 391 post-secondary academic scholarships so far. It also operates three schools for refugees in Lebanon, educating 1,700 school-aged children and employing adult refugees as teachers. In January, Jusoor announced a project that Al Zaibak is passionate about, a new initiative called 100 Syrian Women, 10,000 Syrian Lives, which will focus on female immigrants to Canada-who, along with children, represent the majority of newcomers-providing them with scholarships to post-secondary institutions. Jusoor’s membership now stands at approximately 80,000 people in 40 countries. Al Zaibak’s job is to connect as many of them as she can.

It helps that she exudes an inborn optimism that animates those around her. “Is she ever not smiling?” asks Ratna Omidvar, the Indian-born chair of Lifeline Syria, who appreciates Al Zaibak’s involvement because her fellow board member is deeply connected to young, contemporary Syria as a real place, not an idea. Omidvar says she takes her cultural cues about Syria from Al Zaibak, who not long ago walked alongside the river in Damascus. “She does exist emotionally in different parts of the world. But she is uniquely Canadian in that she understands this country, too, and knows how to leverage its many benefits to be a global citizen.”

Philanthropy is a family affair. On a weekend in early 2016, Al Zaibak and her mother pay a visit to a hotel near Toronto’s Pearson Airport where government-sponsored newcomers are waiting for housing. They bring donated toys; Al Zaibak pays for a prescription to help a man who needs medicine but has yet to obtain health-care coverage.

Mohammad Al Zaibak supports Doctors Without Borders and, like his daughter, sits on the board of directors of Lifeline Syria. It’s tempting to project a spiritual impetus for this selflessness, but Al Zaibak says that, while her family is Muslim, she’s not religious. “We were never raised to do good because religion says so. It was: ‘Do good because we’re all humans and we should help each other.'”

The real site of devotion is Syria, where the family would travel on holidays. On her Facebook page, Al Zaibak quotes a line by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani: “I can’t write about Damascus without feeling jasmine climbing upon my fingers….” She still remembers the entryway to her grandmother’s apartment building-it was wrapped in jasmine, the smell fading once a flower was picked. She fell in love with the vibrant, ancient city where different religions and cultures were seamlessly integrated with one another.

After completing a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Manchester in England, Al Zaibak moved to Damascus in 2009, where she worked for an NGO helping youth. But by mid-2011, tensions were escalating. As confrontations unfolded 20 minutes from her apartment outside the city’s core, she wondered when the violence would reach her doorstep. In May, her father flew to Syria to bring her home.

Upon returning to Toronto, Al Zaibak struggled with nightmares. For once, Canada let her down. “I was discouraged and really disgusted by the lack of action. For four years, we saw videos of torture and killing. It was well-documented by multiple human rights organizations. Syrians inside Syria were asking: Why has the world forsaken us? Why have these people forgotten us?”

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By 2012, Al Zaibak was working as a policy adviser to the Ontario minister of children and youth services, but she spent her free time on Skype, talking with Jusoor board members. In 2013, the organization helped a teen named Abdullah Abudan, who was studying engineering at the University of Alberta. When the Syrian currency collapsed in 2013, the money his parents had put aside didn’t cover his costs. Al Zaibak put him in touch with an expat engineer in Amsterdam. “She paid half my tuition fees for a semester. Without her, I don’t know what I would have done,” says Abudan, who’s now at McGill University in Montreal.

This is what Jusoor does: it forges, person by person, the wraparound support that becomes the difference between a student earning a degree and a student being forced to give up. Recent alumni have been recruited by Google and Goldman Sachs.

“In almost every field imaginable, they’ve excelled,” Al Zaibak says. “Without them, Syria doesn’t have a future.” ISIS has claimed the eastern part of the country and is attempting to move west. As Al Zaibak implies, Syria’s future is everyone’s future.

In early 2016, Enana Alassaf is in her apartment in Norwich, England, just northeast of London. After the bombing in Aleppo, she stayed another year and got married. By 2014, she says, almost all of her friends had left or been killed. Water and electricity had become scarce. Her parents, who were in Saudi Arabia, begged her to leave, but she was determined to get her degree. She hopes to pursue molecular medicine, researching drugs to treat cancer.

With Al Zaibak walking her through the process, Alassaf applied to programs in the U.K. and Canada, and was eventually offered a full scholarship to the University of East Anglia, by the Asfari Foundation-a London-based Jusoor partner.

But it hasn’t been easy. Flashbacks impeded her studies. Aided by counselling and a tutor, Alassaf graduated last spring and has been accepted into a PhD program; now she waits for funding. Last year, she and her husband, a former teacher, sought asylum in the U.K. But Alassaf hopes to return home. It’s not just that she misses pre-war Aleppo; it’s that she wants to rebuild. “Why am I getting all this education?” she says. “Because I want to benefit my country.”

Al Zaibak sometimes imagines her own return to Damascus; she left only because the war erupted. With typical enthusiasm, she describes Jusoor’s aims once the conflict ends: improve the education system inside Syria. If Al Zaibak has her way, the post-Assad generation will arm itself with knowledge. “If the international community was collectively able to put a stop to the crisis, put our egos and politics and agendas aside, Syria could be turned from a situation of hopelessness and darkness to one of life,” she says. “I don’t think it’s idealistic or naive to believe that can be achieved.”

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