'Our life has never been the same since the crisis," Mohammad Al Zaibak says. His tone is respectful, but his expression is weary. He and his family have been watching the humanitarian crisis unfold, frustrated that "the world [has been] sitting silent." The shocking image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, has galvanized the world. But "we have been experiencing images like this since the beginning. That's just one example of what's been happening over the last four years. … The multitude of the crisis has surpassed everything," he says, trailing off as he shakes his head.
Dressed all in white on a hot evening, the 64-year old tech entrepreneur sits in his gracious home in Toronto's Forest Hill, accompanied by his 31-year-old daughter, Leen. They both sit on the board of Lifeline Syria, an organization that helps Torontonians sponsor refugees to come to Canada.
The family is in the process of sponsoring refugees. They have also supported Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) as well as other organizations that are helping in the humanitarian crisis. In addition, Ms. Al Zaibak, who currently works for Free the Children, is a co-founder of Jusoor, an NGO that supports Syrian development through various educational and career initiatives. She is also an active philanthropist in the arts.
A great irony to the tragedy is that Syrians have taken in refugees from neighbouring countries several times in modern history – from Palestine in 1948, from Lebanon, from Iraq in 1993. "They welcomed people, sharing everything they have. It is tragic that the generous, hard-working Syrians who opened their doors to others in crisis, are having to suffer," Mr. Al Zaibak explains.
The family is driven to give back, to help others have a better life, not just out of love for Syria, its history, culture and people, but because of their own fortunate circumstances in the wake of immigrating to Canada in 1989. Mr. Al Zaibak comes from a humble background in Damascus, one of eight children. He immigrated to Canada with his wife and three children from Saudi Arabia, where he had been working.
"I wasn't forced to leave. I chose to leave," he said. "I wanted my family to grow up in a liberal, progressive, open-minded society. I fell in love with Canada." An engineer who has started various businesses in the telecommunications sector, including Teranet, a pioneer in electronic land-registration systems and commerce, he has had a successful career and now sits on the boards of the Royal Ontario Museum and Ryerson University, among others.
Other members of their family are now in Canada, too. Two of his wife's brothers came to study in Canada and are now citizens, living and working in Toronto. Fifteen years ago, his widowed mother-in-law came to Canada through the family reunification immigration process and now lives with them.
Most of Mr. Al Zaibak's siblings live outside Syria, but one brother and members of their extended family remain in the war-torn country. "It is very difficult. We are concerned for them," Mr. Al Zaibak says.
"Opening the door to another 10,000 is a great thing," he says of the federal government's pledge to Syrian refugees over the next three years. "I'm proud of what Canada has done. But we can do better. Ten thousand is nothing given the magnitude of the crisis."
He points out that Canada brought in 50,000 to 60,000 Vietnamese during and after the Vietnam War, and "many of them are now sponsoring Syrians." In 1965, Canada brought in Hungarians after that country's revolution and the Soviet invasion. "They demonstrated leadership by airlifting Hungarians, transporting them to this country."
Growing up in Canada, his three children visited Syria at least twice a year to understand their heritage. They all dreamed of living there permanently, but only Leen managed to. After graduating from the University of Toronto in political science, she went on to complete a masters in political science at the University of Manchester in England.
Upon graduating, she lived in Damascus for two years from 2009 until 2011, working with the World Bank on a project to help at-risk Syrian youth. "I felt this inner peace, like an exhale, when I lived there. It was the best time of my life," she says. "I hadn't grown up there, but everything seemed familiar. People don't have nearly as much as we have. They live very simply. But they're the happiest people." She loved to walk into the old city in Damascus, visit the market and mosques. "There's such history there. Every civilization has moved through Damascus."
Two months after the revolution started in 2011, her father came to take her home. "It was against my will," she says.
"When I came back, I felt very hopeless and helpless and depressed, really," Ms. Al Zaibak says. But then she and a group of Syrian ex-pats decided to start Jusoor, which means "bridge" in Arabic. "We wanted to focus on education as we had heard from youth that this was needed." Through their own fundraising efforts, partnerships and securing scholarships, Jusoor has provided more than $20-million to help Syrian students start or continue studies abroad.
"I felt this great sense of empowerment," she says of her philanthropic efforts. "And the will of people to help allows me go on. Our government should be intervening politically but it's the ordinary citizens that can make a huge impact on the humanitarian crisis. Everyone can help. Lifeline Syria, for example, is really about putting back the power into everyday citizens' hands and saying, 'You can make a difference. Don't wait for the government.'"
Listening to her, her father confesses that it is the younger generation that gives him hope. "I feel that my generation has failed our country," he says. "Maybe because of ignorance and naive tolerance of oppression and dictatorships."
"You thought it would get better," his daughter says with compassion as she observes her father's sadness.
"We were deceived into thinking that. We lacked sophistication maybe," he offers with a regretful expression. "But the next generation, our children, they got educated and they see the world in a different way."