Syrian scholarship students grateful, still worry about those left behind

Two years after leaving war-torn Damascus to continue their studies in Prince Edward Island, a brother and sister from Syria say they are grateful for the chance to continue their education in peace.

'I can go wherever I want without thinking maybe I will be killed'

Siblings Nairouz and Majd Mayaleh came to P.E.I. in 2016 to continue their studies at UPEI. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

Two years after leaving war-torn Damascus to continue their studies in Prince Edward Island, a brother and sister from Syria say they are grateful for the chance to continue their education in peace.

Nairouz Mayaleh and Majd Mayaleh were two of 10 recipients of a UPEI scholarship announced in 2015 intended to allow students whose studies were interrupted by the Syrian civil war, a chance to continue their education in P.E.I.

"Every day I say for myself, thanks God we are here," said Nairouz Mayaleh. "We are in a peaceful country, I can go wherever I want without thinking maybe I will be killed at any time."

Education on hold

For many students in Syria, the war meant a daily decision — stay at home sheltered from shelling and air strikes, or risk their lives travelling to and from class.  

Mayaleh is grateful to be able to continue her studies in Canada. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

For Mayaleh, continuing her studies wasn't an option — it was simply too dangerous.

A friend of hers was killed on the way to his final exam. She still recalls eyeing parked cars as she walked to class, always aware of the possibility of a bomb.

I feel like I need to graduate and be effective in the Canadian society.— Majd Mayaleh

"When I was there, just when I was walking, I was just thinking, this is an old car, this is a bad car, so maybe it will be exploding at any time." said Mayaleh.

"Many times when you go out from your home, you're not sure whether you to come back or not."

'I feel comfortable'

With her university education on hold, Mayaleh said she felt like a "loser" — uncertain of her future, and whether she would ever graduate and start her adult life.

Mayaleh says it is difficult to think about friends back home in Syria who live in danger. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

So when the opportunity came to leave Syria and attend the University of Prince Edward Island, Mayaleh and her brother seized it.

With UPEI taking care of their initial educational needs — English-language training and one year of free tuition — the Syrian community stepped up with everything else, including accommodation.

The siblings have since completed their English-language training and are both working on degrees in computer science while working part-time as cashiers in Charlottetown.

"The most important thing I go to my school and I feel comfortable," said Nairouz Mayaleh. "I feel like I can read, I can study, I can complete my studies and exams — there's nothing will not allow me to go to my exams."

Worried for friends in Syria

Though grateful to be here and for the chance to study in peace, the pair keep a close eye on news back home, and on their family and friends through social media.

Bassel Malke, centre, works in the UPEI International Relations Office and says he's proud of the university's work helping Syrian students continue their studies. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

Majd Mayaleh says he has mixed feelings about being able to get away from the war — while his friends wait to continue their studies or have died travelling to and from class.

"When I saw someone who is dead and ask myself — why he's dead, why I'm here? Why he didn't come to Canada or go far away from the bad situation there?" he said. "It's hard for me to think about that. I don't want to watch it."  

He said all he can do now is focus on his studies — and work toward making his own contribution to the country that offered him and his sister a safe space to learn.

"I feel like I need to graduate and be effective in the Canadian society," he said. 

'We have to help each other'

Bassel Malke, a fellow Syrian student who works in the International Relations Office at UPEI and helped coordinate the scholarship, said he's proud of the work the school has done to allow Syrian students to continue their studies.

Of the 10 students who received the scholarship, some are still completing their English-language training. Others have moved on to regular classes, and one has moved to another province and married.

"These people had great dreams in their minds, they had great goals that they wanted to achieve," said Malke.  

"We are all human being, we need to help each other no matter where we are from, no matter what is our race, religion — we have to help each other."

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About the Author

Jessica Doria-Brown

Videojournalist

Jessica Doria-Brown is a videojournalist with CBC in P.E.I. Originally from Toronto, Jessica has worked for CBC in Newfoundland & Labrador, New Brunswick, and Ontario.