For many years, Najwa Zebian’s home traveled with her, inside her backpack.
“My parents were traveling back and forth between Canada and Lebanon to stay with my siblings, so I lived with multiple relatives. I didn’t really have a constant place to stay. If I did, there was no stability, no sense of somebody constant I could go to,” said the 27-year-old, a Lebanese-Canadian EdD candidate in Educational Leadership.
“My journal was my way of having home travel with me, wherever I went. It was small; it fit my bag. There was always someone to listen to me.”
Today, Zebian, who teaches at Saunders Secondary School in London, is an author, poet and motivational speaker whose works reflecting her personal struggles and search for belonging garner thousands of responses from around the world.
Born in Lebanon, to parents who had previously lived in Canada, Zebian started writing at the age of 13. Initially a therapeutic process, writing stagnated for her three years later, in 2006, when she moved to Canada.
“I came just to visit for the summer and then the war broke out in Lebanon, so I couldn’t go back. All of the feelings of being stuck in a place I don’t feel like I belong came rushing again. I would write, but it was painful. It was writing about my situation, but knowing I couldn’t change it. I didn’t want to feel anymore. Many people that age feel that way; they want to numb the pain. So that’s what I did. I ripped up my journal and didn’t write for seven straight years,” she explained.
In Canada, having completed her BSc, BEd and Master’s Degrees at Western, Zebian started to write again when she found herself teaching English as a second language to Libyan refugees. In them, she saw the same struggles she felt in adapting to a new environment, lacking a sense of self and a sense of belonging. She wanted to do something for them, to empower them to find their voice and place in their new world.
In doing that, she inadvertently helped her 16-year-old self heal, Zebian noted.
Her writing has flourished since. Last year, she published two books of poetry, Mind Platter and The Nectar of Pain. Her social media posts garner media attention and thousands of responses from around the world. Collectively, Zebian has more than a million followers across her social networks. She has been invited to speak at events and conferences. Last fall, she gave a TEDx talk, Finding Home Through Poetry, and this week, she was among the speakers at a London Women Who Inspire talk, hosted by Women and Politics London at Huron University College.
“I see things figuratively; that’s how I make sense of the world. I have always been a sensitive person; I’ve always been empathetic. Growing up, I was made to feel this sensitivity was weakness and I needed to hide that and shield myself,” Zebian said.
As she grew up and experienced bullying and harassment, alongside struggles of fitting in and finding a voice, she came to realize the freedom writing offered.
When humans shut you down, writing can be a way of connecting with yourself, connecting with the world and trying to discover yourself and the world. Writing gave her a voice and helped her realize her voice mattered. This is something she wants to impart to her students and those who read her works, Zebian said.
Two years ago, she taught at London’s GENTLE (Guided Entry to New Teaching and Learning Experiences) Centre, teaching and helping Syrian refugees acclimatize to Canada. Roughly 800 students came through. Zebian was tasked with teaching those of high school age.
“I got to hear their stories; it was a life-changing experience. After they left, I continued supply teaching in high schools they went to. Last year, I gave a speech at the London Convention Centre at a board conference. One of my students, who wears a hijab just like me and was one of the hardest workers, came up to me in tears and said, ‘I saw you. If you can do that, I can do that.’ That was one of my most touching moments and that’s what I hope to do for my students,” she said.
“I am always writing. I don’t know what the future looks like – things are moving way too fast. But whatever life brings my way, I’m taking it and moving in that direction.”