This June, Edmund Shalhoub (MSE 2T2) is finally achieving his long-held ambition of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering — a journey that started 12 years ago in Syria.
“In 2010, my life was quite normal: I went to school, I spent time with friends and I wanted to specialize in automobile and heavy machinery engineering, as part of a mechanical engineering degree,” he says.
“I always believed that having an engineering background — with all the technical and theoretical knowledge — would be my vehicle to make positive change in this world, to discover new things and to solve current problems.”
But achieving this goal was far from straightforward. In 2013, three years into his mechanical engineering education, Shalhoub was forced to flee his home country of Syria, where civil war was raging and encroaching on the city of Damascus.
“I remember there was a huge explosion close to Damascus University, close to where I was living at the time,” Shalhoub says. “It made me realize that it was no longer safe for me to stay in Syria.”
Shalhoub arrived in Turkey in September 2013, determined to continue his studies. But since he only spoke Arabic and English, he spent his first year in Istanbul learning Turkish before starting over at Yildiz Technical University — where he gained a spot in the materials science engineering program.
While in Turkey, Shalhoub applied for refugee status through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and his application was approved and referred to the Canadian Embassy.
“When I got accepted to come to Canada, I was told I would have to leave Turkey soon,” he says. “I had to quit my studies again, and that was hard, but I was motivated by the great opportunity.”
Still, arriving alone in a new country was a terrifying experience, Shalhoub says. The experience was made easier by the support of the Canadian government through a resettlement and assistance program, which provided income for his first year in the country.
But Shalhoub was eager to pick up his studies where he left off.
“I started researching U of T while I was in Turkey and I learned it was one of the best universities in the world,” he says. “I felt like it was going to be my school — I actually felt it!”
Soon after arriving in Canada in 2017, Shalhoub visited the U of T Engineering admissions office and connected with a representative, who listened to his story and advised him to take an English language assessment test as part of his application.
“I passed and received an offer for the 2017-18 academic year,” Shalhoub says. “I was able to transfer 10 courses from my previous universities, so I was a part-time student for my first two years.”
While his time at U of T Engineering proved to be challenging and full of emotional highs and lows, Shalhoub found a supportive community through his part-time work as a communications assistant in the Office of the Chief Librarian at Robarts Library.
“Last November, I became a Canadian citizen, and my colleagues at the library threw me a surprise party to celebrate,” he says. “Everyone there has always made me feel so welcomed.”
Shalhoub also made use of on-campus resources that allowed him to prioritize his mental health. These included mindfulness and meditation sessions and on-going support from the Health and Wellness Centre, which helped him overcome personal struggles during his second and third years of study. He also received a grant to help fund his degree through the University’s Scholars at Risk Award Program.
“Living outside of my origin country has made me discover new things about myself,” he says. “I’ve discovered my strength and my ability to accomplish things I didn’t know I was even capable of when I lived in Syria. And I now know I want to help develop solutions for protecting our environment.”
Shalhoub’s newfound passion for environmentalism ultimately led him to specialize in the field, pursuing a minor in Environmental Engineering through the Cross-Disciplinary Programs Office. He is still exploring options for his future but says that his time at U of T Engineering will always stay with him.
“I am still not sure how exactly I am going to contribute to solving these problems, but I know that I want to use my materials science and environmental engineering education, along with all the technical skills I learned during the last 12 years, to make a difference in the world.”