Name: Najwa Zebian
Job title: Activist, speaker and poet
From: Mdoukha, Lebanon
Currently lives in: London, Ont.
Education: BSc in biology, BA in education and Master’s in education, University of Western Ontario; currently working on a doctorate in education at the University of Western Ontario
First job out of school: Literacy and English as a second language elementary school teacher
If the world is a classroom, then Najwa Zebian wants to be the teacher. The 29-year-old Lebanese-Canadian has spent years studying education and began her career as an elementary school teacher but has since brought her perspective and experiences to the world stage through her poetry.
“My aim is to be real and to be vulnerable and to talk about things that all of us feel and go through but either we don’t have the right words to explain them or we don’t have the courage to say ‘Yeah, I feel this way,’” says Zebian. Her willingness to speak openly about her experiences of displacement, discrimination and abuse has resulted in three published collections of poetry (Mind Platter, The Nectar of Pain and Sparks of Phoenix). All three of her books have hit the bestseller list, with Mind Platter specifically selling more than 100,000 copies, and Zebian has now amassed more than 1 million Instagram followers and fans that include Danielle Brooks and Hilary Swank.
Though writing wasn’t always Zebian’s career plan, it has long been her passion and her way of healing from abuse. Even when she was teaching full-time while also completing her Master’s studies, she would come home and spend three to five hours putting her thoughts down on paper. “At that time, there was no intention of being an author or publishing anything, but that was my form of release,” she says. “That’s how I felt like I was breathing.”
When she began sharing her work, first on a teaching blog and later on Instagram, she saw that it helped others. (She often shares images of fans who related to her words so much that they had them tattooed on their bodies.) Zebian took that as a sign to devote more energy towards writing and speaking full-time. In addition to her poetry, she has given public talks on the personal experiences and lessons behind her poetry. She has presented at multiple TEDx conferences, and her speech about “Finding Home Through Poetry,” presented at TEDxCoventGardenWomen in 2016, has been viewed nearly 100,000 times on YouTube.
“It’s like the universe is telling me ‘This is what you need to be doing. Yes, you’re a teacher in a classroom, but you have a bigger classroom to teach in, and that’s the world,” she says.
Zebian says that what sets her apart from other poets is that, even when discussing her experience with sexual harassment or why she recently chose to stop wearing her hijab, she shares her feelings in a raw form. And as her star rises, staying true to that voice is what keeps her grounded.
“For me, success is when I am able to be authentic with myself in terms of keeping my work that I’m trying to do within the world as genuine as it should be instead of it being strictly monetized,” she says. “It’s striking the balance between authenticity and trying to make a living.”