2015 Torontonians of the Year: Lifeline Syria advocate Leen Al Zaibak

Leen Al Zaibak, humanitarian

In early 2011, Syria erupted when students wrote on their school walls, calling for the downfall of the government. They were imprisoned and tortured, and the nation protested (peacefully) for their release. Leen Al Zaibak was living and working for the World Bank in Damascus helping high school dropouts return to the workforce at the time.  

“No one knew how the unrest would unravel, and my father actually came to Damascus to take me home,” says Al Zaibak. The World Bank had shut down her program, Syria, the country she loved, was devolving into chaos, and she was 10,000 kilometres away in Toronto. 

Al Zaibak, who came over from Syria at four years old, grew up in Forest Hill. “There are as many Syrians living outside the country as there are Syrians living in Syria,” explains Al Zaibak, who wanted to create a bridge to connect the two communities in an effort to build a network. 

She, along with a group of ex-pat friends, launched Jusoor (the name is Arabic for “bridge”). Last year, the NGO provided 209 university scholarships, and 1,700 Syrian refugees are enrolled in three schools they’ve set up in Lebanon. The teachers are also refugees. 

Now, Al Zaibak is getting Toronto involved in her efforts to save Syrian refugees. She is advocating for Lifeline Syria, a grassroots citizen initiative to bring 1,000 Syrian refugees to the GTA through private sponsorships. 

“A minimum of 1,850 Torontonians have signed up to open their homes to refugees,” says Al Zaibak, who sits on the Lifeline Syria board. “In order to have an impact on policies, you need to be present at the table and have a voice there.” She believes that “the face of philanthropy has changed.” Leading by example, she is proving you do not need to be Bill Gates to make an impact in your community. 

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