Meet Shoushi Bakarian: engineering student, aerospace inventor and Syrian refugee

(Courtesy of Dominick Graval / Agence QMI)

(Courtesy of Dominick Graval / Agence QMI)

How the “refugee STEMinist” discovered her love of aerospace engineering.

Shoushi Bakarian is the first to admit that she wasn’t a good student at the beginning of high school. Busy with tennis, gymnastics and scouts, she didn’t feel engaged with her studies. But that changed when conflict hit her home city of Aleppo.

Because the city was no longer safe to travel around and her family’s home didn’t have electricity, running water or gas, Shoushi couldn’t surf the internet or participate in her after-school activities. So, she turned to her school books “because that was the only thing that was available.” As she spent more time reading, she made an important discovery about herself: “I figured out my strengths, which were math and physics.” She loved problem-solving and seeing how different concepts relate to each other.

Although Shoushi had found her passion, life during the Syrian civil war wasn’t easy. “Before that, I was living like a normal 15-year-old,” she shares. “And then one day everything stops, no more fun stuff. It’s not safe anymore. I have to think before I have to go somewhere else… Am I going somewhere safe? Am I going to come back? Is it an OK time to go out?”

“We had to count how many times we can shower,” Shoushi recalls. “And we had to go and bring the water ourselves because there was no running water. We had to go to a well.” The Bakarian family worked with the limited resources available: “If at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. suddenly we had electricity, we had to wake up. We had to charge stuff because we were living on these LED lights.”

After years of living in these conditions in Aleppo, Shoushi completed high school with strong grades and a determination to study engineering at university. Two days after Shoushi’s high school graduation ceremony, her family decided to flee to Lebanon — her mom required a surgery that was no longer available in Aleppo. Shoushi’s instructions were simple: “Grab what you want. Just one suitcase. We’re leaving.” The drive to Lebanon was treacherous as the family didn’t know if the roads were safe. “On the way, the only thing that we were thinking was let’s safely get to Lebanon,” says Shoushi.

Shoushi and her friends at graduation in Syria. (Courtesy of Shoushi Bakarian)

Shoushi and her friends at graduation in Syria. (Courtesy of Shoushi Bakarian)

Shoushi spent a year and a half in Lebanon. She enrolled in a small university to study mechatronics (she wanted to study mechanical engineering but her school didn’t offer it). A tennis scholarship helped Shoushi pay for her tuition and she represented the university in local competitions. After three semesters, Shoushi and her family received life-changing news: they had been accepted to resettle in Canada.

“They let you know two days before that ‘Hey you got a flight, you’re going to Canada,’” Shoushi remembers with a laugh. Although she had just started “a normal life” again, she thought that Canada would offer her family more opportunities and security. “I was looking forward to have a place where I’m not going to have to move again,” Shoushi says. “I know that if I’m going to be coming here [Canada], this is going to be my house and I’m not going to have to move again because I really hate moving.”

At 18 years old, Shoushi boarded a plane to Montreal with her parents and older sister, Meghri. Adjusting to their new life in Canada was difficult — they had to learn to speak both English and French, and found that Canada is not as cheap as the Middle East. To help support her parents, Shoushi took a job at McDonald’s. The Canadian government also aided the family in navigating these new challenges: “We had a lot of help from them [the Canadian government]. First for the English barrier, and then job opportunities.” The family enrolled in a government programme that teaches refugees the languages. “How Canada welcomed us was amazing,” Shoushi shares.

Shoushi and Meghri had only been in the country for a matter of days when they set out to re-enrol in university. With the help of Google Maps and public transportation, they began visiting campuses in the area to figure out how they could apply.

While at an open house at Concordia University, the dean of students approached the sisters and asked where they were from. “We’re originally Armenian, but we were born in Syria and it’s been five days we’re here,” Shoushi told him. The dean introduced the girls to Dr. Arpi Hamalian, an Armenian doctor in the education department (Meghri is studying education). Dr. Arpi proved instrumental in aiding the two sisters as they applied for university — and later, when they enrolled at Concordia. “She would help us through our studies, in case we were lost and didn’t know what to do with our jobs. We would always go and ask her, ‘What should I do?’,” Shoushi says of Dr. Arpi. “She’s an amazing woman.”

Shoushi started out studying mechanical engineering at Concordia. During her second semester, she joined a club that builds radio-controlled airplanes. The club competes in SAE Aerospace events for university students. “Ever since I’ve been in love with planes,” Shoushi says of joining the club. “It’s amazing how a million parts are engineered to work together in order to fly.” The process involves a great deal of riveting, filing, cutting and building. “It’s like crafts except you build a plane,” Shoushi explains with a smile. Her favourite part is after designing the plane on the computer, seeing it physically on the table.

Shoushi and her teammate building their plane for an SAE Aerospace event. (Courtesy of Shoushi Bakarian)

Shoushi and her teammate building their plane for an SAE Aerospace event. (Courtesy of Shoushi Bakarian)

Unfortunately, Shoushi hasn’t been able to join the competitions in-person for the last two years — the events have been held in the U.S. and she hasn’t received the necessary visas. “It hurts me so bad because I want to see it,” Shoushi says of not watching her plane in action. “I worked on that. I put my time, I put sweat and blood. I want to see this thing fly.” To help include Shoushi, her teammates FaceTime her and send lots of videos from the events.

Despite not being able to attend the SAE competitions, the aerospace club is still one of the most important parts of Shoushi’s university life. Because of the club, she changed her major to aerospace engineering as soon as Concordia opened an aerospace programme. Her classes help her learn the theory behind aerospace engineering while her student jobs give her practical experience.

Last year, Shoushi joined Stratos Aviation, a nonprofit that promotes aerospace careers. While working in their lab, Shoushi helped to create a more efficient ventilation system for small aircrafts called the Ventus. By moving air from a large area to a smaller area, the device increases the velocity of the air, which causes the temperature to decrease. Shoushi had the idea to incorporate a charger in the ventilation system for pilots to power their smartphones and tablets — older planes don’t often have charging ports, which is a problem as pilots often rely on their personal devices to navigate trips. After three months of designing and testing, the Ventus is now being manufactured.

Once the aviation company Bombardier Aerospace read about her work on the Ventus, they reached out to offer Shoushi a job. She currently works three days a week in their part services department. Shoushi loves learning about the different parts and their functions. Her university classes focus on general education about the aircraft and this job helps supplementing that with more specialised knowledge. “I know the names of the parts that are really tiny,” says Shouhi. “They’re just these tiny things in the aircraft that we don’t even notice.”

Shoushi and the Ventus. (Courtesy of Daio Ayala / The Globe and Mail)

Shoushi and the Ventus. (Courtesy of Daio Ayala / The Globe and Mail)

School, the aerospace club and her part-time job at Bombardier keep her plenty busy, but Shoushi still finds time to play volleyball and lead a scout troop of girls ages 12-13. “Back in Syria, that’s how my life was,” she explains. “My parents put me in a million activities.” Shoushi is a firm believer that school and work are not enough — there is more to life. As a scout leader, she hopes to encourage girls to think beyond “traditionally female” jobs and to pursue whatever field captures their interest.

“We always thought that STEM was a boys’ club and we still do. Our numbers are not that high, even in Canada, it’s not that high in engineering or in STEM. I believe that it’s because of the way that it’s taught to us,” Shoushi says of gender disparity in STEM fields. “I think it’s really important to help them [girls] and teach them at young ages that it’s OK if you want to go into STEM. Go ahead, go into STEM. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Shoushi also wants to show her troop mistakes don’t have to define you. “When I was failing and when I was doing bad, I had no one to tell me, ‘It’s OK,’” she says of the beginning of her high school career. Shoushi hopes her story shows girls around the world that “you can move on from that failure and do better next time” — just like she did.


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About the author

Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.