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Scholar-at-Risk: U of T’s Noura Al-Jizawi, a key player in the Syrian uprising, became an opposition leader

Noura Al-Jizawi joins U of T’s master’s program at the Munk School of Global Affairs this year through a Scholars-at-Risk scholarship. Photo: Noreen Ahmed-Ullah

Seven months pregnant, wearing a bright yellow shirt and a flowery hijab to cover her hair, it’s hard to imagine this petite woman sitting outside the Munk School of Global Affairs as a die-hard revolutionary.

In fact, the University of Toronto master’s student in global affairs was in the thick of the Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad when it began six years ago.

“I was one of the crazy people who started the revolution,” Noura Al-Jizawi says with a grin. “All the time, revolutions are started by crazy people. It’s a kind of madness.”

Al-Jizawi, who came to U of T through a Scholars-at-Risk scholarship, was one of the young leaders who kickstarted the movement, which has gone from being a peaceful revolt to a full-scale civil war with more than 465,000 Syrians killed and over 12 million displaced in a conflict that now includes Islamic State and Russia in the mix. During the early years of the revolt, Al-Jizawi organized pro-democracy protests, ran a blog, posted photos of victims – many of whom were close friends killed by the regime – and travelled around Syria, mobilizing others.

She was detained several times, underwent torture and had family members who were arrested and beaten up. When the time came to escape to Turkey, she left on foot, a 20-day journey crossing rivers, climbing mountains and riding donkeys. There, she started an NGO helping victims of torture and female survivors, and advocating for those forcefully displaced. She became a vice-president of the Syrian opposition, one of the few female leaders in the national coalition against the regime, sitting across from Assad’s negotiating team and locking eyes with the enemy.

Noura Al-Jizawi (centre) with staff from Syria’s first regime-free publication, called Hurriyat or Freedoms. Photo courtesy of Noura Al-Jizawi

That’s what gives it away – Al-Jizawi’s eyes.

Their dark intensity speak to her steely resolve, courage and passionate drive to defend human rights.

“I trust the principles that I’m fighting for,” she says. “I will keep fighting for people’s rights around the world, not only in Syria.”

U of T’s Scholars-at-Risk program has been around since 1999, a partnership between the School of Graduate Studies and Massey College. Over the last seven years, the program has offered financial support to 24 graduate students and academics who have fled war or persecution in their homeland. This year, the university also offered fellowships to international students in the U.S. who have been impacted by President Donald Trump’s immigration restrictions.

Al-Jizawi, who at times used her middle name Al-Ameer to protect her family in Syria, first heard about U of T when her email account came under attack two years ago.

The Munk School’s Citizen Lab, an internet watchdog group, came to her aid, analyzing the virus and publishing a report about a sophisticated cyber-espionage campaign against the Syrian opposition.

When it came time to apply to a master’s program, Al-Jizawi said U of T was the only place she considered. She joins a growing number of human rights defenders and activists who come to study at the university, by way of Citizen Lab.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – JUNE 6: Noura al-Amir, Vice President of the National Coalition for the Opposition forces and the Syrian Revolution, holds a press conference Istanbul, Turkey on June 6, 2014. Photo: Gokhan Ayar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab, says he wouldn’t be surprised if Al-Jizawi goes on to become an influential leader in human rights.

He calls her story and that of her husband – Bahr Abdul Razzak, a former Syrian activist who Deibert has now hired as a researcher at Citizen Lab – “awe-inspiring.”

“The ordeals that they experienced while in Syria are terrifying, and yet the way they have been able to rise above those ordeals is both remarkable and wonderful,” says Deibert, who is a professor of political science at U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science. “Noura is a fierce defender of human rights. She is highly intelligent, thoughtful and articulate. Sometimes you meet someone young like her and say to yourself, ‘This is someone who will go on to do amazing things.’”

Al-Jizawi’s story begins in Homs, considered “the capital of the revolution.”

She was 17, a university student agitating against widespread corruption, lack of political freedoms and state repression under the Assad regime. The students met underground and passed around “illegal articles” secretly downloaded off the internet. Al-Jizawi was first detained for kicking an intelligence officer who was harassing her. The second time was for writing a fictional account of a dictator imposing a colourless world of blacks and whites.

“I remember clearly that I didn’t write anything political,” she says. “This dictator forces people to wake up at 6 in the morning just to listen to his speech every day. He collects books, stories and novels in the city and burns them. He forces women to change the colour of their hair and make it black. At the time, there’s a disabled woman, and she holds the revolution in her heart. She creates her own secret room and puts everything illegal in this room. She discovers by chance that the dictator is breaking all the laws because in his castle, he has candles, women with coloured hair. This dictator himself is wearing coloured clothes. They end up killing her, and her blood goes on the towel, and the towel becomes red.”

Political or not, someone read between the lines. Al-Jizawi was arrested.

After she was released, she stopped blogging and focused her attention on the Arab Spring unfolding across the Middle East.

“It was like a dream. When it started in Tunisia, I felt like yeah, it will come. It will come to Syria.”

The revolution arrived in March 2011.

Non-violent protests like these in Homs were organized by Noura Al-Jizawi and fellow activists in the early days of the conflict in 2012. The photo was taken by a friend, Mazhar Tayara, killed by the regime that year. Photo by Mazhar Tayara

With Homs being a key city, Al-Jizawi became central in organizing demonstrations and documenting stories of victims forcefully detained, tortured and killed by Assad’s forces. She produced Syria’s first regime-free publication called Hurriyat or Freedoms, and worked tirelessly to get the revolution’s story out to international media.

As the uprising spread, the regime’s crackdown intensified.

On a trip from Damascus to Aleppo in 2012, four armed men boarded Al-Jizawi’s bus and kidnapped her, covering her eyes, tying her hands and stuffing her into a car. It would take 40 days before her family knew her whereabouts or even if she was alive.

She steers the conversation away from the torture she endured. Guards beat her with electrical cords and electrocuted her, and made her watch friends being tortured under interrogation.

“Sometimes, I feel shy to share this because I survived, and thousands are still suffering,” she says. “They focused on how they will destroy me from inside. They attacked my brain. They asked about my family, about my activities, my friends. They were recording all my calls, so they were asking about every word I said over three months of calls.”

Friends and supporters around the world, including in London, held protests demanding the release of Noura Al-Jizawi and other women being detained in Syria. Photo courtesy of Freedom For Activist Noura Aljizawi Facebook page

It’s her younger sister, Alaa, who is Al-Jizawi’s hero. Figuring out that Al-Jizawi was likely detained – the sisters had worked out a code word in case Al-Jizawi was ever arrested – Alaa warned other activists not to respond to messages from her sister’s phone.

While Al-Jizawi gave interrogators fake accounts, created in case of an arrest, her sister was busy shutting down the real ones.

In detention, Al-Jizawi learned her younger brother had been arrested when they met, briefly, in the facility. On another occasion, she and other prisoners were moved to an underground basement, their mouths taped shut. She later learned it was because the Red Cross was coming to inspect the facility after an outcry from human rights groups and the United Nations.

Six months later, Al-Jizawi was finally released, only to learn her sister was being held and their family had left Homs after their house was repeatedly raided and attacked.

“We lost years of our lives as a family. My father was arrested. My brother, the first time he was arrested, he was only 16 years old. My sister also. And me myself. We lost years in detention.”

In her sister Alaa’s case, the torture got so bad – guards hung her from her hands, beat her, electrocuted her – that in 2013, once her sister was released, the family decided to leave Syria and make the dangerous trek to Turkey to seek treatment.

“She was young. She was small. I feel like all the time she’s my heart, my life, and I have to take care of her. I feel guilty. They tortured her so badly because of me, because I was wanted.”

Al-Jizawi’s voice cracks. “For so many months, I didn’t have courage enough to look at her eyes. I felt like everything they didn’t do with me, they did with her. It’s harder than killing me.”

In early 2011, “the revolution” arrived in Homs, with peaceful anti-government protests. After a brutal crackdown by security forces and pro-Assad militia, tanks were sent in. With government forces laying seige to certain neighbourhoods, street battles ensued with opposition supporters taking up arms. Eventually, Assad forces regained control of the city. A scene in Homs from earlier this year after a double car bomb attack. Photo by Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

By the time Al-Jizawi decided to apply to U of T, she had been living in Turkey under a two-year passport from Syria, which cost $850 and required months of negotiations with the Assad regime.

Even getting her hands on certificates verifying her undergraduate degree proved difficult. Everything had been lost in Homs.

Today, Al-Jizawi is no longer with the opposition party. She resigned because she felt the party was bending too much to international pressure and not looking out for forcefully displaced Syrians and their right to return home one day. She remains confused by the lack of response from the international community.

“The surprise for me was the reaction of the international community. We said at the beginning of the revolution, this is the time of social media and international relations. We used Facebook and Twitter to publish videos and photos about everything that was going on. We shared photos of victims who were killed.

“It was hard to see. It was hard for us to share photos of people we love. But we tried to call on the international community, all human rights activists around the world, this is happening to us. What will you do? Sadly, the final report by the UN clarified that the regime committed massacres and used chemical weapons but nothing happened. Nothing.

“Those youths and women who were demonstrating were against dictatorship. We are against terrorists. War is not our choice.  What we want for the future of Syria is we want peace, freedom, justice, democracy. We want to feel our dignity that we are humans in this country.”

Earlier this year, Noura Al-Jizawi participated at the United Nations’ 34th regular session of the Human Rights Council. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression

Her six siblings are now scattered: two sisters in Sweden, a sister in Turkey, a sister and brother in Germany, and another brother in detention in Lebanon. Her mom and dad were split apart by the war: Her mom lives with one of Al-Jizawi’s sisters in Sweden while her father is still in Damascus, not ready to give up on Syria.

“Every single moment, I want to call him. I want to make sure he’s alive. Every time I hear a bomb attack in Damascus, I feel scared. There’s no one there to support him or make sure he’s OK.”

As she begins her master’s, Al-Jizawi says she feels welcomed in Toronto, something she hasn’t felt in a long time as a Syrian refugee.

“When I meet a new person in Toronto, and he says, ‘Welcome to Toronto,’ I feel like I need this. When I used to travel around the world and say I’m from the revolution, they would say, ‘Are you supporting ISIL [Islamic State]?’ Why am I supporting ISIL? Because I’m wearing hijab? It’s my identity, but it doesn’t reflect that I’m a terrorist. In America, it’s hate speech. In Canada, I don’t face this.

“I have found that people accept you whatever you wear, whatever your background and opinions, which is great. Maybe because of that, I didn’t choose any other country to apply.”

Once her baby is born, sometime around Nov. 5, Al-Jizawi plans to return to school.

Incidentally, the baby shares the same projected birth date as her sister Alaa’s baby. Al-Jizawi marvels at how that worked out. Both babies will also be girls.

“I see the baby as the future. It’s making me want to work more toward the future,” she says.

Noura Al-Jizawi with her sister, Alaa, in Sweden shortly before starting her master’s program at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Photo courtesy of Noura Al-Jizawi