She sends me a photo of wreckage: a building bombed to nearly nothing, just some swaying frames of former walls, pages of books floating around, people searching desperately through the rubble. “Today there was an airstrike on the University of Aleppo,” Leen Al Zaibak (BA 2006 TRIN) writes in an email. “Seventy-seven have been killed with the count rising still. To attend lectures and exams like the rest of us do is equal to risking your life in Syria, my beautiful Syria.”
A few months after the government quashed the first protests in the spring of 2011, and the unrest began, Al Zaibak and nine other expats started Jusoor to find ways that the 20 million Syrians living abroad might help the 20 million Syrians there. “Jusoor means ‘bridges’ and we want to set up bridges. There are some experienced organizations concentrating on the crucial immediate needs of the citizens, providing humanitarian aid,” says Al Zaibak, who came to Canada with her Syrian family from Saudi Arabia when she was four. “We wanted to look to both the short term and long term, and decided to start by paying for some Syrians to begin or continue studying abroad, out of harm’s way.”
The fledgling organization has raised more than $600,000 to help about 80 students from Syria start or continue studies abroad – at least five of them would otherwise have been enrolled at the University of Aleppo. Some of Jusoor’s 4,000 members around the world have helped 300 Syrian students navigate the process of applying to universities. (The Toronto branch, led by Al Zaibak – a policy adviser to the Minister of Children and Youth Services at Queen’s Park – is its most active; its 15 members, five of them U of T students, meet monthly.) And it has partnered with other organizations, such as the Institute of International Education, to find emergency funds for Syrians studying abroad whose families suddenly were unable to foot their tuition bills.
After attending U of T and graduate school in England, Al Zaibak worked for two years in Damascus, on a project supported by the World Bank to help kids who’d dropped out of high school get into vocational schools. “I realized in general the textbooks they were sometimes using were 40 years out of date. You’re a pharmacy student and you’re studying what was current in the 1970s?” she says. “When the crisis ends, that’s something we want to work on – the education in Syria, as well as helping students to get out. Reopening the closed universities and high schools. Brain drain is not what we’re about, but saving brains that will help rebuild after this is over.”
Watch to learn more about Jusoor.