June was a very busy time for Majd Al Zhouri but, considering the highlights near the end of the month, he was fine with the hectic schedule.
On June 28, he joined the rest of the Dr. J.H. Gillis Regional School graduates in receiving his diploma; an achievement accomplished in a year-and-a-half as he combined high school courses with those obtained through Nova Scotia Community College.
Just prior to graduation week, in the midst of his final exams no less, Al Zhouri flew to Vancouver as a nominee for the National Fresh Voices Activism Award; an award he would end up winning.
“It’s for any refugees who use art to tell their story, their experience; to make themselves presence; it’s about community engagement,” Al Zhouri said in conversation with the Casket June 27.
Al Zhouri and his family arrived in Antigonish in January of 2016. Fresh Voices was recognizing his one-act play To Eat an Almond about the harrowing times he and his father endured in the midst of the Syrian civil war before rejoining the rest of their family who had evacuated their home months earlier.
“It’s about my experience during the Syrian civil war,” he said of the play he co-wrote with Brendan Ahern.
“It’s a story from when I was 15 years old; how I experienced the war, how I survived many bloody scenes, how I was injured one time, lost my dad three times … all about my experience back home,” he said, noting he had the story, basically, written and Ahern helped him shape it for the theatre.
He also noted the assistance of Lionel Doucette in creating the play and that it was Syrian-Antigonish Families Embrace (S.A.F.E.) who nominated him for the award.
“People from S.A.F.E. nominated me like two months ago; they did all the applications, submitted all the work … I didn’t do anything. At the end, they told me, heads up, you’ve been nominated for this.
“The trip itself was great,” he added, noting he could bring someone with him so his sister, Ranim, accompanied him.
“It was kind of a quick trip. I was in the middle of exams and I was supposed to be there on June 19, at the same time my exams schedule started. I went to school and asked if I could write exams before I leave; they said ‘yes’ but I didn’t have a lot of time to study. I wrote three of my exams before I left.
“It was a relief [having some exams completed] though, when we were in Vancouver. My sister and I, we explored a lot of places there; Stanley Park, the aquarium, Grouse Mountain – saw a grizzly bear … it was quite a good experience.
“We didn’t have a lot of time to explore, really just one day because our flight back was on Tuesday.”
Al Zhouri talked about the Fresh Voices ceremony and award.
“This organization has been doing a lot to support refugees; it’s their goal just to recognize refugees for their work, what they do,” he said of the B.C.-based organization that supports refugees coming to Canada from all part of the globe [see freshvoices.ca].
“It’s good to have someone recognize your work, appreciate it … and help you, encourage you; it helps you to keep going because what you do is helpful to you and for the community.”
He noted most of the awards were for refugees who have settled in B.C. and his was the only one which was opened nationally.
“Basically, they have eight awards and seven of them are for immigrants from B.C. and one is a national one which I was selected for … so winning from all across Canada.
“And not just Syrians, from all around … there were three Syrians in the group [of award recipients].
“Myself, I was competing with two others. When I went there, I didn’t know I was the winner; only thing I knew was that I was one of the three. I said to myself, ‘it’s still a cool trip if I don’t win the award, the money, I already won the trip.’ It’s such an expensive trip, a cool trip, it’s really organized; flight paid, hotel paid, all the taxis around paid, food… it was a great trip, all free,” he said with a chuckle.
“When they announced, I had a hard time … it took me, like, 15 to 20 seconds to realize that was my name. They said my name and took a pause, the person beside me said ‘yeah, it’s you, it’s your name.’”
Al Zhouri talked more about how writing and performing To Eat an Almond helped him and his community.
“It was helpful for me as a way to heal from the past suffering, my past five years,” he said.
“And it was helpful for people here to have a better understanding of what it’s like to be a refugee, what is happening in Syria. My one-act play didn’t explain why the war started, the politics, who is fighting who, it was just about refugees and that citizens are the only people losing now; the people who are dying now are not those fighting.”
Now turning his attention to the graduation ceremony only a day away, Al Zhouri said it’s a “big day.”
“It’s supposed to be my graduation from university but the war interrupted my studies for five years,” he said. “I’m so glad I had the chance to go back to high school. I’m 21, and they’ve given me the chance to go back to high school. I did grades 10, 11 and 12, all that in just one-and-a-half years … that was great.”
He noted he had the support and assistance of many in helping him achieve on such a tight schedule.
“I would never have been able to do it without all the help from high school, community college, ACALA [Antigonish County Adult Learning Association], the library,” he said. “People from the community college, the Regional, ACALA and people from S.A.F.E. all came together to develop a program and schedule for me to finish high school … to have my high school diploma this June.
“This program was tough but I really wanted to do it because; I always describe it like this, you don’t know the meaning of something until you lose it. Because I lost my schooling, my education for five years – two years during Syrian civil war and three while a refugee in Lebanon where I had to work all the time to survive – I needed money, because I lost school, I really value school, I know what it means and I’ve always worked hard to reach my goal.”
Al Zhouri is now getting ready to attend St. F.X. in the fall. He refers to university as “my spot.”
“It’s my spot right now,” he said. “The future now is St. F.X.; I’ve already been accepted now to engineering … I’m so excited to start this new chapter of my life.
“I don’t have a particular [field of engineering] but engineering has been a dream since I was 12 years old. I always say the reason for this dream was because I grew up with engineering people. Back home, we had a construction company. We had 32 people working for us including four engineers and when I was like that kid, 12 years old, I always played in the office and they would take me to see the project side.
“I might be a civil engineer or a mechanical engineer, those are two options I have right now but, who knows, the first year could change everything. I’m just so excited for it … I still can’t believe it.”