“I’m so sorry, I don’t want to say those words out loud.”
Rusul Alrubail is the executive director of The Writing Project, a small but growing publishing platform that helps all kids, but particularly marginalized ones, accelerate their digital literacy and critical thinking skills through writing, sharing stories, and community. She’s also a former refugee who has known real fear. As a child in the 1990s, she escaped Iraq with her family, a harrowing journey that took her through an unwelcoming Jordan and ultimately, to Toronto, where she now lives.
The words she doesn’t want to say: Muslim registry. “I’m in a coffee shop,” she says. “Even though I’m in Toronto…I’m…I’m too afraid.”
Alrubail is exactly the kind of advocate and technologist the world needs, and she’s been doing all the right things to grow her organization.
She’s becoming a regular at SXSWedu, and her TEDx talk has become her calling card. Her work has been publicly cited by Brad Smith, Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer, for her use of Skype and storytelling tools to help U.S. school children understand and connect with the lives of refugee kids around the world.
She works with a small team – “less than ten people,” she says, but more help will be coming, she hopes. “We’re bootstrapping, but almost ready to look for funding partners,” she says, putting on her start-up voice.
But now, she’s reconsidering giving keynotes in the U.S. and has already canceled an important event in Philadelphia after she was waved off by white American friends who are worried for her safety. “They know of women who have had their hijab yanked from their heads, threatened on the streets,” she says.
But giving speeches and networking at these events have helped her meet new potential partners and investors — and get better at her work. “These meetings help me grow,” she says.
The irony, of course, is that her work – teaching kids to share their stories – is predicated on her desire to scale empathy. “When we tell our story, people humanize us. When we are prevented from sharing who we are, we fail to see other people as fully human,” she says. For kids who are shut out of systemic power, that impact is devastating. “I know what it takes to function within a system of oppression,” she said in her TEDx talk. “In a system that is not built to create leaders from marginalized individuals… in a system that oppresses and silences those who are different.”
As she whispers to me over the phone, she considers how her own story is changing. “I am re-thinking my strategy, maybe focusing on Asia and the Middle East,” she says, trailing off. But she doesn’t like feeling so unsure. “I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.”