Photo: Manal Zreik received the Sheila Cecchetto Award at Ryerson’s Student Experience Awards.
Written by Will Sloan

“I’ve always been ambitious—I just wanted to feel liberated,” says Zreik, who was 20 at the time, and is now finishing her third year in Industrial Engineering at Ryerson.

“But living in the type of society that I lived in—traditional, conservative—there aren’t many opportunities for women. … There was a war in 2008, 2009, and I experienced that. I have seen what war does to the extent of death and destruction everywhere, I was frightened. After that, I realized that I must leave for the sake of survival and the hope of starting a fresh life.”

She left secretly, without her family knowing, and without a clear plan except to make it to the United Arab Emirates. “The Gaza Strip, it’s like an open prison—we do not get out or get in easily,” she says. “I think what made me take that decision is realizing that I have nothing to lose at that time and without trying I wouldn’t have been able to discover the life that I belong to today.…” Thus began the long, globe-spanning journey from the Middle East to Toronto.

Stuck in Egypt and unable to make it to Abu Dhabi, Zreik called on her Facebook friends (few of whom she had met) for help. Through her contacts, she found accommodation in West Africa, where she earned a work permit and spent six unglamorous months at an ice factory.

“That experience shocked me because of the life that the West Africans go through— living in poverty; the difficulty to access clean water and the lack of basic health needs. ” says Zreik. “It made me reconfirm my decision of pursuing engineering, my responsibility is to make a positive change that would impact these people’s lives.

Through another friend, she was able to move to California, and earned a conditional acceptance at a university in New York. Unfortunately, her legal status was that of a visitor: to be fully accepted, she would have to go home to Gaza and re-apply—an impossible option. Homeless, and facing great personal risk if she returned to Gaza, Zreik was told that she could make a strong claim for refugee status in Canada.

She arrived in Toronto in February 2011. The transition was not easy. “When I came, I did not know anyone. I didn’t know how the system worked. I didn’t know the resources available for a refugee or a new immigrant. Also, there was the language barrier—I did speak English, but very basic. Having one job at minimum wage is not enough to survive in Toronto, so I had to work two to three jobs, and I could only attend evening ESL classes, but sometimes I’d get evening shifts.”

How did she make it through those years? “Hard work and never giving up —I think that’s the key. I am always confident that things will eventually turn better. I’m resilient, and focused. I know how to set my goals and how to focus on them. Nothing comes easy, but with hard work, you achieve what goals you set for yourself.”

She was accepted into Ryerson—her first and only choice—in 2014. Though her first year was rocky, she sought academic counselling, and began to find her place on campus. She became a member of Women in Engineering, as well as a peer mentor for the RU Lifeline Syria Challenge, helping women refugees through their transition to Canada. “It’s a very empowering experience to try to help these women, and save them the time that it took me. It took me time to learn about all these resources. I could have got to school the year after I arrived here, but I didn’t know anything.”

Zreik’s volunteer work has earned her the Sheila Cecchetto Award Winter 2017 at the Student Experience Awards, and a scholarship from the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science (Fall 2016). She is a permanent resident, and will become a Canadian citizen this year.  After a long estrangement, she has also reconnected with her family in Gaza.

“I am grateful that I got to meet amazing people through my journey, I met my my role model, best friend Haneen in Toronto. Haneen is not only a friend, she is my sister that I never had. I learnt from her how to be independent and strong. I am also lucky to have the most supportive boyfriend. I won't be that close to achieve my dream of becoming an engineer without their continuous support.”

When asked for advice for new Canadians, Zreik offers, “Reach out. There are a lot of resources. Don’t be shy; don’t be confined to yourself. Ask questions, because a lot of people are willing to help. I felt like I was on my own and I had to do everything on my own, but I think I was mistaken. With all these useful resources, it won’t be as challenging as I experienced.”