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.