Meet a Laurier grad who had to flee Syria as a teen and started a school for hundreds in Lebanon

As a teenager, Aphrodite Al Zouhouri started a school in Lebanon for hundreds of other children. Now she's graduated from Laurier, studying the effect of trauma on education.

Aphrodite Al Zouhouri has studied the effect of trauma on education

Aphrodite Al Zouhour​​​​​​​i and her mother with a group of children at the school she started in Lebanon in 2014. (Submitted by Aphrodite Al Zouhour​​​​​​​i)

When Aphrodite Al Zouhouri became a teenager, her life in Syria changed dramatically.

The civil war had just begun. She lost friends and family. Her home was destroyed.

"Thinking about the future was no longer possible," said Al Zouhouri.

Nearly a decade later, Al Zouhouri is graduating from her Masters in Education at Wilfrid Laurier University. In 2018 she came to Canada as an International Students Overcoming War Scholar — a program at Laurier which supports students from conflict areas. 

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo is sharing the stories of some of the graduating scholars over the next month.

'Looking for safety'

After the war broke out, Al Zouhouri and her family went to Lebanon as refugees. 

She struggled with the word at first. To her it meant hopelessness and not having means or power. 

But in Lebanon, the refugee community became her community. And her understanding of what it meant to be a refugee completely changed.

"You're looking for safety, that's it. You're a person with power, education and dreams," said  Al Zouhouri.

One of Al Zouhouri's dreams was to study computer engineering. She loved the precision of math. She also quickly realized higher education wouldn't be a reality for her in Lebanon.

So she shifted her focus to the other children around her. Syrian children who had also lost everything. Al Zouhouri was only a high school student at the time, but she and a few others started tutoring the students.

Started a school in 2012

They ended up starting a school in 2012. She says they had only 14 students at first, but over the next six years it grew to 400 students.

"Our main goal was just to help them be critical readers, writers, thinkers and understand the world around them," said Al Zouhouri.

Starting the school was an exercise of learning on the fly. They googled how to teach subjects such as Arabic and math. Many of the children also had to work and buy things for their families. She wanted to empower them with financial literacy.

"Education can change a lot of things," said Al Zouhouri.

Teaching children in Lebanon fostered a new passion in Al Zouhouri — one for education and studying the impact of war on how a child learns.

That's what inspired her move to Canada and her decision to apply Laurier's  International Students Overcoming War Scholar program.

'Wonderful friendship'

Kristiina Montero, an associate professor in the faculty of education, remembers meeting Al Zouhouri when she started at the university. 

"I can't imagine what it's like to have to flee one's country because of war and persecution and that's what she had to do, and yet she came with such positivity and such a sense of humour," said Montero.

Al Zouhouri would sit in Montero's office and they would chat over coffee about Al Zouhouri's dream to help refugee newcomers with education and mental health.

Aphrodite Al Zouhouri came to Canada as an International Students Overcoming War Scholar — a program at Laurier which supports students from conflict areas.  (Submitted by Aphrodite Al Zouhouri)

Montero says she's learned so much from Al Zouhouri and her great resilience.

"It's a wonderful friendship really," said Montero.

When Al Zouhouri came to Canada, she says she had just one goal — to make a life here.

Now she has "hundreds and thousands of goals," including working with refugees and helping teachers understand the impact of trauma on children.

"Hope is there and you can change so much through education," said Al Zouhouri.