BY NAHEED MUSTAFA from The Owl, Summer 2018
Noura Al-Jizawi is bundled into an overstuffed parka and struggling to get a stroller through Massey’s main doors. Her nine-month-old daughter smiles as she’s jostled around. She’s wide-eyed and rosy-cheeked, decked out in a pink headband and tiny jeans. Finally, both mom and stroller make it in and Noura heads for the Junior Common Room. Several young women make a beeline for the baby. For Noura Al-Jizawi, it’s a long way from the frontlines of the Syrian uprising to life as a graduate student at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs, through the Scholars-at-Risk scholar-ship program, a partnership between Massey College and the School of Graduate Studies. Noura says she’s still trying to take it all in — this new life in a new place with a new baby.
Noura had small ambitions growing up in her hometown of Homs in western Syria. She wanted to study, to read, to savour her morning coffee just like she’d seen her mother do for as long as she could remember. Noura and her six siblings had a good life in Syria, filled with family and laughter, schoolwork, and picnics on the weekend. But Noura had always felt something dark lurking beneath the veneer of calm. It was a feeling she’d see manifest in adults as a kind of carefulness. There was never explicit political talk, no open criticism of the regime. She saw public veneration for Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, insinuate its way into every aspect of Syrian life. Hafez al-Assad’s portraits, large and small, were everywhere — even showing up in the thousands on the cover of Syrian children’s notebooks. Noura learned early that being safe meant being quiet.
Talk to Syrians about life before the 2011 uprising and they’ll tell you that it was mostly okay as long as you followed the rules: don’t agitate, don’t protest, assume you’re being watched, trust no one. By 2011, Syria had been under a perpetual state of emergency for nearly five decades. Security forces had vast, sweeping powers. Detention and torture were common. Syrians had learned well what kind of behaviour was acceptable. If you were good at keeping your head down and keeping your nose out of trouble, you were free to enjoy what remained. People had jobs, food was plentiful and affordable, and education was accessible. Mostly, these things were enough — until one day when they weren’t.
On December 17, 2010, a city employee in the small town of Sidi Bouzid, just south of the city of Tunis in Tunisia, confiscated a vegetable cart from a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi. He tried to navigate the bureaucracy to pay his fine and retrieve his cart and produce, but ended up defeated and humiliated. In the late morning he returned to the municipal offices where he stood outside, doused himself with gasoline, and set himself ablaze. The Arab Spring had begun. Over the next several months, protests and calls for change would sweep the Arab world. Governments would topple. Noura watched carefully from Homs with growing excitement: maybe such change could come to her country too. In March of 2011, the wave crashed its way into the Syrian town of Daraa, and Homs, some three hundred kilometres north, soon became a key site for protests. Noura, by then a graduate student in Arabic literature, jumped in organizing rallies and connecting with international media. She started a publication called Hurriyat, meaning “Freedom.”
Those were heady early days when Syrian activists were motivated by the changes they were seeing throughout the Arab world. There was a sense that the future belonged to freedom and young people were going to play a key role in making that future happen. But the Assad regime responded with a brutality on a scale that few could have imagined. Noura’s activism was met with violence.
She was detained multiple times and tortured. Two of her siblings — a brother and sister — faced a similar fate. In 2012, after her 16-year-old sister was arrested and tortured by the regime, the family fled to Turkey. But the displacement did not stop Noura from continuing her work. She joined the Syrian National Council — the coalition of Syrian opposition forces — and in 2014 became the SNC’s vice-president, and member of the negotiation panel in Geneva. She surprised even herself with that move. “I didn’t plan to join the opposition. From the beginning of my activities, I thought I could be a writer or researcher but never a political player,” she says.
Her work with the official opposition lasted until 2016. She resigned because she felt the coalition was giving in to international pressure. She felt they were abandoning Syrians who had fled by not standing up for their right to return to their homeland. But Noura kept going with her advocacy work around psychological support for Syrian women who had survived detention and torture.
The Scholars-at-Risk program allowed Noura to come to Canada. She’s now pursuing a Master of Global Affairs degree at the Munk School and trying to figure out her next steps. “It is a struggle for me though
I have found a lot of support from the students,” she says. “I come from a completely different education system and this is the first time I am studying in English. It is a challenge.”
Noura’s husband, whom she met in Turkey, was also an activist, and he’s now a researcher at the Munk School’s Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary research hub studying information controls that threaten openness, security, and human rights on the Internet. The Syrian conflict has often been referred to as the first fully “digital” war with the frontlines drawn not only on the ground but also in cyberspace.
Noura is both happy and grateful to be at the University of Toronto. She’s pursuing a degree she’d always dreamed of, she has a quiet life with her husband and daughter, Toronto is safe. But the peace of her day-to-day life has come at a high price: ”I feel it’s hard to remember my life before the conflict. Partly because the conflict has been going on so long but also because of trauma. I feel the same, but sometimes I feel I am a different person.”
Looking back on those early days and seeing what’s happened in the intervening seven years — starvation, torture, displacement, up to half a million dead, parts of Syria reduced to rubble — it’s nearly impossible to remember the optimism of those young activists. Noura’s family now lives scattered between four countries with her father still back in Syria, unable but also unwilling to leave.
Noura bundles her little girl back into the stroller and encases herself in the giant parka. She’s off to meet a friend and we decide to walk together for a bit. I ask her if she ever regrets her activism.
She doesn’t hesitate with her answer, despite everything she’s been through. “In Syria, the only way to do politics was to be part of the regime,” she says. “We youth started this movement. It was a gamble but we took a risk. We didn’t want to give this over to old men with white hair and expired ideas.” She pauses and looks around at the young students around us, rushing off to class. “It’s our future. If we want it, we have to fight for it. Change will come.”