Q&A: Leen Al Zaibak, Lifeline Syria board member

Q&A: Leen Al Zaibak, Lifeline Syria board member

Leen Al Zaibak worked at Queen’s Park and the World Bank. Her real ambition: to make life better for Syrians. Now thousands of Torontonians are pitching in

Leen Al Zaibak
(Image: Erin Leydon)

You’ve been working to bring attention to the plight of Syrians for years. A few weeks ago, that heartbreaking photo—of three-year-old Aylan Al-Kurdi washed up on a beach—went viral, and suddenly Syria became the cause du jour. What was your reaction?
It was such a tragic image. What many people don’t realize is that we’ve been seeing pictures like that, and much worse, for four years—the effects of chemical weapons, entire cities razed by barrel bombs. But the photo of Aylan shook our consciousness and moved people to act. His death wasn’t in vain.

You’re a board member of Lifeline Syria, a Toronto-based NGO that launched in June. What has the response been like these past few weeks?
Insane. We have 150 sponsorship groups and counting, and so many inquiries that we have been hosting sold-out info sessions twice a week—200 to 300 people at each. Lawyers and doctors are offering pro bono work, too.

Can you explain the crisis in Syria for those who haven’t followed the news?
Sure. In 2011, a group of school kids outside Damascus wrote on a wall asking for the overthrow of the Assad government, probably copying what they’d seen in other Arab Spring countries. The government jailed and tortured them, their parents protested, and things snowballed into a revolution. Then the Assad government turned their guns on the people, killing children, women and seniors.

The opposition has grown into disparate rebel groups fighting the Assad government. Complicating matters is that ISIS, which controls the eastern half of the country, is making incursions west. So what’s the best outcome for Syria in terms of leadership?
Certainly not ISIS. But we mustn’t forget that Assad started this. He massacred his own people. You can’t negotiate with a war criminal.

Your family is Syrian. What was it like coming here?
My father was a telecommunications engineer who moved to Saudi Arabia, then to Canada in 1989, when I was four. We settled near Avenue Road and St. Clair. I remember toboganning, going to movies at the Eaton Centre, visiting Niagara Falls. I went to Bishop Strachan School, then Havergal, Trinity College at U of T and Manchester University for a master’s in international relations.

What did your parents do for work?
My mother stayed at home. My father founded Teranet, the land registry database. They worked very hard, like most immigrants do.

They named you Leen. What does it mean?
The centre of a palm tree. It’s supposed to be very soft and sweet.

When were you last in Syria?
I lived in Damascus for two years, starting in 2009. I was working for the World Bank, tasked with getting high school dropouts into vocational schools and back into the work force. It was a wonderful time. Syria is like an open-air museum, with layers of buried civilization still being unearthed. And the people are so generous. They don’t have much, but there’s not a stranger who wouldn’t invite you home for tea.

Were you in Damascus when the protests began?
Yes. People were still going out to cafés and restaurants, but it was tense. There was an air of uncertainty and fear of being attacked.

When did you leave?
I was in Toronto on vacation in May when the World Bank shut down my program. I got pretty depressed for a while. Then some friends and I launched Jusoor—it means “bridges”—to help raise funds for Syrians to complete their education. We’ve raised the equivalent of $20 million in donations, scholarships and the like.

With your resumé, you probably could have gotten a job anywhere you wanted. Did the private sector cross your mind?
Never. I was doing such satisfying work. And the results have been heartening: Jusoor students have been recruited by Goldman Sachs, Google and Amazon, among others.

In addition to Lifeline Syria and Jusoor, what else is on your plate?
Well, my day job—I’m a senior manager for donor organization at Free the Children. I’m up at 6:30 a.m. and get home around 10 p.m. It’s exhausting, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.