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Meet Alex Zakharia: recipient of Empowerment Squared’s 2021 Chanan Singh Sandhu Memorial Scholarship

Jun 16, 2021 | Homepage, News & Updates

Meet Alex Zakharia: recipient of Empowerment Squared’s 2021 Chanan Singh Sandhu Memorial Scholarship

Empowerment Squared congratulates Alex Zakharia on being the recipient of Empowerment Squared’s 2021 Chanan Singh Sandhu Memorial Scholarship. Alex is a dedicated supporter of Empowerment Squared and has been a volunteer with our Digital Literacy and Academic Mentoring programs. He is a third year Honours Biochemistry student at McMaster University and plans to pursue a career as a pediatrician or veterinarian. Alex learned about Empowerment Squared during a talk our Executive Director Leo Nupolu Johnson gave to his residence building at McMaster University and was inspired to join the organization as a way to give back to youth who have faced similar challenges to him.

If you would like to learn more about the Scholarship and Awards at Empowerment Squared, and help us celebrate the 2021 recipients, please join us for our third annual virtual ceremony on June 23 at 6:00 pm by registering at

Alex sat down with Joana Fejzaj, Empowerment Squared’s Manager of Partnerships and Community Development, and Empowerment Squared volunteer Amy Schaefer, for an in-depth conversation from Bahrain over Zoom.


Joana: Alex, give us some context about your journey

Alex: I am a third year Honours Biochemistry student studying at McMaster University. I am the child of an Iraqi mother and Lebanese father who both fled their war-torn countries in search of a safer future for our family. I was born in Bahrain and lived there until I was 11 years old. During the Bahraini Uprising, my friends and I got tear gassed at a birthday party which led to my parents making the decision for our family to move to Halifax, Nova Scotia to avoid the escalating protests. When we moved to Nova Scotia, my mom wasn’t able to find steady employment, so we had to make the difficult decision to move back to Bahrain in the summer of 2014, where I subsequently completed my education. I decided to move back to Canada on my own to pursue my post-secondary education in 2018 and chose McMaster. Due to COVID-19, I have since made the decision to move back to Bahrain, but Hamilton remains my home away from home.


Do you still have family in Lebanon and Iraq?

All of my direct family is in Bahrain right now. I have cousins who live in the Arab Emirates and the US. I also have family in Montreal and an uncle in Lebanon. On my mom’s side, everyone left Iraq as soon as they could due to the political unrest. A fun fact to know about Bahrain is that it’s smaller than Hamilton and everyone knows everyone here based on their family name. I actually bumped into someone at McMaster actually who is from Bahrain and we quickly realized that our fathers worked together. What are the odds of that?!


You have had to move back and forth between Bahrain and Canada a number of times, and always into a new situation. How do you think that has shaped you?

The constant moving that I’ve had to do in my life has taught me the importance of learning to adjust quickly. As an example, the transition to online learning was not too challenging for me as I’ve always had to adapt. While moving back and forth across the world, I always focused on my studies as the only constant in my life. Moving a lot also means meeting a lot of people which comes with valuable exposure to cultural diversity.

One of the questions I face is that I don’t have one place I can call home and I don’t know what city or country I will be in after graduation to settle down and start my own family. Most of my friends have an idea about a city or country they will settle in and I don’t know where I will be in the next five years. With that said, I am leaning towards Canada!


The scholarship you won, the Chanan Singh Sandhu Memorial Scholarship, was started by a Hamilton business owner in honour of his grandparents, who used their furniture store in Nanaimo to help newcomers immigrate to Canada. Where do you get your motivation to give back to the community?

My motivation to give back really comes from my connection and the energy that I am feeding off from the community and the place I am living at any given time. I’ve learned that the more I give, the more I receive socially, culturally, and environmentally. It feels good to give back and to know that you are part of a community. When I moved to Hamilton, Empowerment Squared created that sense of community because I was seeing the same people weekly and that constant created a sense of home. In order to get from the community, you must also give, which has been very satisfying for me.

Now that I am back in Bahrain I’ve been thinking a lot about ways that I can give back to my local community here. My dream is to open a rest home for dogs and cats that are in their final years because there is a big problem with stray cats and dogs here in Bahrain. I want to create a shelter where every animal is loved and welcome. There is a big stigma here around stray dogs. I want to contribute to a neutering initiative for the animals locally.

If I could say anything to Chanan it would be thank you! Thank you for the opportunity to be sponsored by his family – without the legacy of his generosity, that would have never been possible. Of course he’d be proud to see that his own family has expanded and established themselves across Canada, but I’d also like to praise him for the fact that that’s just one of the hundreds of successful immigration stories that have been fulfilled because of his generosity. We only get one chance to make a difference in this world, and he’s helped hundreds of families plant their roots in Canada, who now have children and grandchildren of their own that consider Canada to be their one and only home, so his benevolent contributions will continue to be immortal; he’s changed generations of lives for the better. Living in Canada is such a privilege considering the struggles of food scarcity, medicine scarcity, high poverty, war, and probably several more inequities around the world. He’s changed generations of lives and I’m beyond humbled to be worth sponsoring by a family with his legacy.


How did you come across Empowerment Squared?

I learned about Empowerment Squared during my first year in University when Leo Nupolu Johnson, Executive Director of Empowerment Squared gave a talk at my residence building. I didn’t know anyone at the time and I was in Canada alone with no family. I really wanted to see, experience and get to know the city I was going to be living in so I decided to join. After the first semester I took a break from working with Empowerment Squared as I had to learn to manage my time better and focus on my academics. Once my grades improved, I came back during my third year and have been involved with the Digital Literacy and Academic Mentoring program ever since.


What role did mentors play in your own journey?  

One of my first mentors was my dad. In our culture, there is an attitude that education is the end all and be all for your children. Throughout my entire life, my father has always shown me the importance of education as a key to open doors for you anywhere you go. My dad is still a mentor to me and without him I would not appreciate education the way that I do.

In Canada there are two people in particular that took me under their wing and played a critical role in my academic and personal growth. First, Dr. Darren de SA, who I have been working with on medical research, has taught me how to intensely focus on research and do it well. He gave me an opportunity that most undergraduates don’t have and he put his trust in me. Dr. Monica De Paoli has been the most emotionally connected mentor. She did her MD in Italy and came to Canada to do her PhD. She is very emotionally intelligent and recognizes that mental health always comes first. When I first came to McMaster I had an extreme mentality that I needed to get the best GPA possible and sacrifice everything to get it which resulted in poor mental health. Monica played a role in that she taught me that grades are important but your health is first. I’ve integrated all lessons into my own life and the work that I do at Empowerment Squared.


How would you describe the youth that you are mentoring? 

The youth I mentor have been through so much in life. When we jump on our virtual call for our weekly academic session they are excited to learn and motivated to succeed. It’s humbling to see that they are hungry for success. The kids at Empowerment Squared are wizards, they are truly amazing! All curriculums are not the same and based on what gaps someone may have, it’s a determining factor on student success in Canada. Empowerment Squared is the place that helps kids catch up and not fall behind.


Is there anything that you would like to say to the kids and families that you have been working with?

There is so much I want to say to them! I want to congratulate them for how far they have come not just at E2, but alo by moving to a new country, starting over, and not giving up. Starting over means not being around your friends and your family, needing to learn a new language and adapt to a new culture, and adjusting to a curriculum that is foreign to them. I want you to know that all the mentors you meet recognize your challenges and are proud of you, are here to support you and want you to keep going even when things are hard.


What inspired your decision to pursue a career in medicine?

In high school, I was torn between medicine and veterinarian school. When I came to Canada I fell in love with research and that’s where my passion lies. Becoming a pediatrician would be a dream come true. I am also considering going into veterinarian surgery with a focus in helping animals. I love studying the sciences and working with people in helping them get better and I also find it academically challenging and fulfilling. Honing in on pediatrics, I also like making a fool of myself and I like seeing kids smile. As a little kid I was always in and out of the hospital due to sports injuries and the best doctors that I met were the ones that made me laugh. I am a big believer that laughter is an incredible medicine that helps you forget the pain.


If you could broadcast one message to the world, what would it be?

I would say if someone needs help, do your best to  help them. Take the time to ask if they are okay because that help could change their life. I’ve noticed that it’s very rare that we stop to help others, because we have so much going on ourselves. Helping others creates a ripple effect and the community will be better that way.


Is there anyone you would like to shout out? 

I want to shout out to my girlfriend who has been my rock during some very difficult times. I met her in high school which was a very difficult time for me. At that time I was getting bullied at school, and my grandmother passed away. My relationship with my parents has had many challenges over the years. My girlfriend has always been there to cheer me up and helped me really turn things around. She really helped me cope with what was happening at school and at home.


What is next for you?

My plan this fall is to apply to medical school. If I don’t get in this year, I am thinking that I will take the time to learn Arabic, code and learn about investments. These are skills and attributes to learn at a young age so I can apply them and benefit me and others. One of the main reasons that I want to learn Arabic is so I can communicate in Arabic with the kids at Empowerment Squared and speak in their native language.

If you would like to learn more about the Scholarship and Awards at Empowerment Squared, and help us celebrate the 2021 recipients, please join us for our third annual virtual ceremony on June 23 at 6:00 pm by registering at

Empowerment Squared congratulates Alex on his accomplishments and contributions. To learn more about our work at Empowerment Squared, please contact Joana Fejzaj, Manager of Community Development and Partnerships at