Bridges, Lifelines, and Hope
Leen Al Zaibak keeps her eyes on the future and her feet firmly on the ground. This, it seems, is the necessary strategy when navigating tough missions.
Leen and her family immigrated to Canada when she was 4 years old. Her family is part of a large diaspora of 20 million Syrian expatriates around the world before the war. “It’s an educated and successful community that I’m proud to be a part of”, Leen shares.
These numbers have rapidly shifted since the Syrian uprising began nearly 4 years ago, with more than eight million Syrians displaced internally, and four million made refugees. Fifty percent of these refugees are children and youth.
These facts are integral to understanding the nature of Leen’s work. Leen is highly cognizant of how her identity and privilege intersect, and thus wasted no time in leveraging her foresight and the power of a large diaspora to intervene in this moment of crisis.
When Leen moved to Damascus in 2009 to reconnect with her roots, a new chapter in her life began as she fell in love with her home country all over again. A few months in, she found an opportunity with the World Bank to work on a project targeting at-risk youth by improving the employability of marginalized youth through vocational training,
Upon witnessing the stunning resilience and potential of Syrians in addition to the great success Syrian expatriates have had outside of Syria – Leen along with a group of Syrian expatriate friends knew that something could be done. A bridge needed to be built with the aforementioned Syrian expatriate community in mind, Jusoor first came to fruition.
Once the conflict began however, the issue of education became threatened by the war. Leen reluctantly returned to Toronto, at first ridden with a sense of despair. She understood the long-term consequences of an entire generation being deprived of education. Fueled by this urgency, Jusoor concentrated their efforts on education in hopes of preventing a lost generation from being created.
Jusoor means “bridges” in Arabic, a fitting name for an organization dedicated to reconnecting youth with their disrupted education. Jusoor has partnered with universities and institutions around the world, including the Clinton Global Initiative, to provide 205 university and post-graduate scholarships so far – 27 in the last year alone. Close to the front lines, they’ve set up 3 schools for 1,800 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, while also employing adult refugees as teachers.
“Bridges are a two-way street” Leen explains. “These students have surmounted so many obstacles to get an education – they are absolutely my inspiration. This experience has forever changed me as a person.”
The importance of this project is mirrored by its challenges. “Everyone thought this crisis would be over in a few months, maximum a year,” Leen explains, “Getting students back in school seemed like post-conflict issue, and not as urgent as humanitarian aid.” This meant that all the students who were merely 1 or 2 months away from graduating were relegated to a hell-like limbo.
Jusoor is a powerful intervention, taking action in the midst of crisis in order to secure Syria’s future. Leen emphasizes that the success was a result of the support of thousands of Syrians and Non-Syrians.
This manifests just as powerfully with Lifeline Syria, another project Leen holds very close to her heart. The concept is simple: by privately sponsoring the basic resettlement needs for one year upon their arrival to Canada as permanent residents, Canadians help Syrian refugees rebuild their lives. So far, 200 funding groups have been formed and are in the process of being matched with refugee cases.
“We live in such a globalized world, yet still very much think in terms of borders and nations. We should be helping each other for the simple reason of all being human”.
Leen’s deep concern for her and her generation’s legacy appears elsewhere too. In addition to being the Senior Manager of Donor Engagement at Free the Children, Leen is a committed philanthropist. She sits on the Young Patrons’ Circle of Massey Hall and Roy Thompson Hall, the Chair of the Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Leaders Circle, and on the board for a youth mental health organization. Leen will also soon be on the Telus Toronto Community Board.
“It’s so important that we invest in the arts and in youth, and to have more Arab presence in all these spaces. That’s why I am passionate about Arab young professionals and youth getting involved.”
Luckily for us, Leen Al Zaibak seems intent on finding new ways of building bridges between the homes we all share – whether it’s in Toronto or Damascus.