We are thrilled to announce Ibrahim Alaboud as our new executive director. Ibrahim is a former English student who worked in various capacities in the English program. Before becoming executive director, he led the program as its manager. Two core values of Paper Airplanes are listening to students and providing opportunities for them to help shape and run the organization. We are delighted that Ibrahim will be able to draw upon his experiences as a former student and as a longtime staff member to lead Paper Airplanes into its next chapter.
Ibrahim vividly remembers his first English lesson. A Syrian lawyer who became a refugee after persecution from ISIS, he lived first in a refugee camp in Beirut and then worked at various labor-intensive low-wage jobs including as a cleaner, an agricultural field worker, and a construction worker. Finally, after a year and a half, he settled in a one-bedroom apartment in Lebanon with his family. He was eager to improve his education so that he could apply for jobs that had a greater positive impact, but he needed to learn English to do so. His friend told him about free English lessons at Paper Airplanes, and he was accepted to participate as a beginner English student.
Paper Airplanes Executive Director, Ibrahim
“I remember my tutor turned on her camera and immediately started speaking English to me. She kept speaking to me and I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I assumed she wanted me to introduce myself. So, I used very simple words like what my name was, and where I was from.” But then, he confused his age – instead of saying thirty, he said thirteen. He was so embarrassed and afraid to continue that he turned off his computer, abruptly ending the lesson early.
But despite his fear, he decided to continue. He apologized to his tutor, an American retired nurse, who gladly rescheduled the lesson. They began meeting regularly – at 5 A.M. his time, because he was working a full-time job in construction and the time difference made it difficult to meet in the evenings. He lived in a one-room apartment with his wife and two children at the time, making early-morning lessons particularly difficult, and he would try to stay as quiet as he could so that he didn’t wake them, even placing a curtain in the middle of the room so he could turn on the light. His tutor focused heavily on speaking, which Ibrahim said is a unique component of PA.
Unlike English language tutorials that you can find on YouTube, speaking can only really be practiced live, with someone else who knows the language. Ibrahim says that the tutoring was more than just English lessons; the sessions were like an oasis, a mental break from the stresses of his daily life. “I could forget, for a little while, my circumstances, and dream of a better future.”
Ibrahim’s ambition and drive to succeed led him to study for, and eventually pass, the notoriously difficult IELTS English exam. Through Paper Airplanes he worked with a British IELTS instructor, who helped him prepare for the exam. Their lessons coincided with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when suddenly everything went online. She was new to the digital teaching space, but needed to learn how because of the pandemic, so their lessons became a bit of an exchange: Ibrahim showed her how to use the technology she needed to teach, and she taught Ibrahim about the IELTS. The two became friends and remained in touch; Ibrahim even became her supervisor at PA after he joined the staff. During a character reference interview for Ibrahim, she shared that “if it weren’t for Ibrahim, I wouldn’t be the online teacher I am today.”
Ibrahim has always felt a desire to help others. In Syria, he was a lawyer who specialized in criminal law. When the war broke out, he became an outspoken advocate for human rights. He worked to support those who had been arrested by various armed groups, explaining that it was “impossible to stay silent when I saw things happen that were wrong.” But he was forced to relocate after it became unsafe for him to remain in his hometown.
Then ISIS came. His situation intensified, and after being investigated several times, ISIS threatened to decapitate him for his political activities and personal beliefs. He was forced to flee, leaving his family behind for a period of time under the terrorist group’s terrifying and brutal rule while he lived in a refugee camp, working hard and long hours to try to send money back to his family. During this time, Ibrahim’s brother lost a leg from an ISIS bomb, and Ibrahim’s son continues to experience cerebral paralysis indirectly caused by living under ISIS’s repressive rule.
Throughout all of this, his drive to help others never left him. After he passed his IELTS exam, he wanted to “help other people the way Paper Airplanes had helped [him].” His tutor encouraged him to apply to become a student coordinator with Paper Airplanes, which led him back to the English program. That semester, he was the only coordinator to have students complete all of their lessons. “People were asking me,” he recounts, “‘What is your secret?’”
Though he didn’t share this, my sense is that Ibrahim’s “secret” is simple and yet surprisingly rare: a combination of work ethic, resourcefulness, and an extraordinary amount of empathy. That combination has driven him to come up with new ways to help students, like offering free translation between non-Arabic-speaking staff and Arabic-speaking students, becoming a coordinator for student admissions, creating new internal systems to make some data collection automated, and working as a conversation group instructor, where he encouraged students to also help others. It drove him to push PA to serve more students from Syria and from other conflict-affected areas like Afghanistan and Ukraine. And it eventually drove him to apply for, and successfully become, the new executive director at Paper Airplanes.
So far, Ibrahim has, unsurprisingly, fit naturally into his new role as the leader of Paper Airplanes. His goals for the organization remain firmly rooted in how the organization can better serve students. He wants to serve more people from Syria and the MENA region, but also from other conflict-affected areas like Afghanistan and Ukraine. He wants to deepen the impact of our programs so that students get more holistic services like job support or help with filling out university applications. He also wants to diversify program offerings, and he wants the organization to reach financial stability so that all of this can be accomplished. During our conversation he rattled off statistics about PA’s popularity and reach within conflict-affected communities: 3,838 applications for the English program in just seven hours. “Do you know how rare this is? Usually organizations are asking for students. Here, it is the other way around,” he told me excitedly. “We are forced to turn thousands of students away each semester because we can’t afford to serve them. I want to change that.”
To achieve his goals, he has hit the ground running at a speed that is impressive if not downright inspiring. By the time we connected—the end of his first full week on the job—he had already met with Ukrainian tutors and groups of potential Ukrainian students, trying to set up partnerships to serve Ukrainians in the next semester of the English program. During the conversation, he recalled, “They [started] describing to me what it felt like to not have electricity, to wake up and count the buildings that had been bombed the night before.” When they began sharing their experiences, he said that he felt he “could really understand what they were going through, because I experienced the same things in Syria. We used to do the same thing every morning as soon as we woke up; it became our daily routine.” He shared this with them, and they reacted with surprise. “Wow, you understand what it means for students who miss lessons. You understand their experiences and their suffering,” he recounted for me. It was a big “A-ha!” moment, and the conversation became warmer, more comfortable, with a sense of shared experiences and an unspoken “You get it!” connection.
This exchange drove home for me why leadership by former students is so important to an organization’s success. It not only helps the organization connect to volunteers, to donors, and to partners, but it also, critically, connects us to students. Ibrahim’s ability to understand students’ experiences makes him, not only an incredible problem-solver, but also a deeply empathetic leader of an organization whose primary mission is to serve students.Reflecting on this, I asked him what Paper Airplanes can do to help students like the Ukrainians he spoke to. He paused, thinking deeply. “We can’t erase the war,” he admitted, “but we can help them forget for a little while. And we can give them hope.”
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