Four young women who are the recipients of the Daughters for Life Scholarships reflect on their journey to York University and how their studies are positioning them to be future changemakers.
By Elaine Smith
After his teenaged daughters were killed during an Israeli air strike in 2009, Palestinian-Canadian physician and peace activist Izzeldin Abuelaish (LLD Hons. ’15) didn’t simply mourn; he kept their memories alive by creating the Daughters for Life (DFL) Foundation to offer full undergraduate scholarships that allow young women in the Middle East the opportunity for shining futures and the ability to give back to their home countries. York University, as one of the organization’s newer partners, is privileged to see these talented students begin to reach their potential as scholars and members of society.
“Partnership between academic institutions as York University and Daughters for Life can foster a stable and sustainable world through supporting women’s education, opportunities and role,” says Dr. Abuelaish.
Eva Shenoda, a young woman from rural Egypt who is York’s first graduate of the program, says, “I truly couldn’t imagine my life without Daughters for Life and York University. It’s something I can’t express. I tell others, ‘Don’t be scared. It’s important to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. It makes you strong, gives you new skills and paves the way for your future. Learning is the key to opening lots of doors.’ ”
Shenoda took hold of the DFL opportunity with both hands. After graduating from a high school specializing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses, she decided that Egyptian universities weren’t equipped to offer the most up-to-date lab equipment and skills training. A friend of hers had applied to Daughters for Life for a scholarship and Shenoda followed suit. She was deemed a good match for York and moved to Canada.
“The team at York International (YI) was great,” she says. “They met me at the airport, took me to residence, showed me around campus and had me participate in the international student orientation. It was the kick-start I needed because I was very shy.”
Shenoda lived in residence during her four years at York, working there and with YI to earn spending money. She is extremely grateful to York for offering her the opportunity to remain in residence during the pandemic when she couldn’t return home.
“I don’t know what I would have done without that,” she says. “It was extremely generous.”
Shenoda graduated from York in 2021 with an honours BSc degree in biology and is now at the University of Calgary working towards a master’s degree in gastrointestinal science with a specialty in immunology, supported by the university and a Faculty research grant. She envisions pursuing a research career and, possibly, a medical degree.
“I miss walking on the York campus,” Shenoda says. “My friends in Toronto are my family in North America and York, for sure, is my home.”
Rasha Aljbour Almajali, a third-year student majoring in commerce and human relations at York University, grew up in Amman, Jordan, the oldest daughter of four. Her mother was the family’s sole provider and a strong believer in education. Aljbour Almajali’s DFL scholarship is her key to a university education.
Although she applied for a number of scholarships, Daughters for Life was the only one that supported her in all aspects, something that made it possible for Aljbour Almajali to study abroad.
“I had the interviews and our goals aligned,” she says. “It was amazing, honestly. The people at the program kept checking on me as if I were their own daughter. Their investment in my education humbled me and drives me even more to prove myself.
“It was my last hope. When I told my mother I had been offered the scholarship, she cried, and I cried.”
Aljbour Almajali’s dreams of ultimately working at the United Nations or the World Bank so she can “give back to the world,” but plans to earn a master’s degree in international relations or public policy first. The diversity she has discovered at York and in Toronto fascinates her.
“I’m always learning something new about different religions and cultures and how people think,” she says. “I try to put myself in others’ shoes, thinking about how they grew up and what made them that way. It’s so interesting; I’ve never been exposed to so much diversity in my life.”
Dania Mahadin, another Jordanian student from Amman, is in her second year of civil engineering studies, thanks to Daughters for Life.
“Everyone told me I couldn’t do engineering – an Arab, hijabi-wearing girl in a male-dominated field,” Mahadin says. “I try to challenge all of those stereotypes.”
The pandemic lockdown meant Mahadin spent her first year of university study at home in Jordan, so she is new to the Keele Campus and to living alone.
“I want to engage with the community,” she says. “I’m in my second year and I have never been to class in a lecture hall.”
She has joined York’s Women in Science and Engineering club as a member of the executive and is busy helping to plan a winter term hacking event for high-school and university students; Mahadin is also very involved with AIESEC, an international leadership organization that works to make the world a better place.
“School literally changed my life,” she says. “I feel like it’s home here.”
Using her passion for computers, mathematics and science, Mahadin hopes to put her engineering talents to work creating buildings where people can live and gather, creating community.
“I think about how I can combine my Jordanian heritage with my Canadian influences and build a place where people can respect each other and live together in peace,” Mahadin says.
Another student, Passant Metawally from Egypt, went to a STEM high school and wanted to pursue her studies further, even though, in Egypt, “women tend not to pursue careers in computer science and engineering.”
“I decided DFL offered me the only chance to test myself as a person and academically in adapting to many different things, and I’m glad I made that choice; it has forced me to grow so much,” says the fourth-year computer engineering student. “I have adapted well.”
She hasn’t yet decided between pursuing a graduate degree that integrates computers and biology or going back to Egypt to lend her talents to a thriving community of startup companies, but either option offers opportunities for further growth.
“York University is proud to be a partner with the Daughters for Life Foundation,” says Vinitha Gengatharan, executive director of York International. “At York, our goals include facilitating access for success to talented students, working in partnership, and this intersects brilliantly with DFL’s mission. The young women who have come through the program so far are incredibly bright and deserving of every opportunity to succeed. York is delighted to be part of their journey.”