The number 500 carries special significance for Sarah Attia.
That is the number of handmade heart- and dove-shaped chocolates handed out at Hart House on November 14, the number of winter coats being collected and distributed to Toronto’s homeless, and the number of days her husband, University of Toronto alumnus Khaled Al-Qazzaz, has spent detained yet uncharged in an Egyptian prison.
Those receiving one of the handmade chocolates would have heard of Al-Qazzaz’s tale.
Attia recounted how, after Al-Qazzaz completed his master’s in mechanical engineering (MASc) in 2003, the pair moved to Egypt, where they “started an International School that provided children with quality education and focused on skills development, volunteerism, community, and human rights.”
Due to his work as a volunteer campaigner for the Freedom and Justice Party, a former Egyptian political party, Al-Qazzaz was eventually asked to join the Egyptian president’s office as the Secretary for Foreign Relations.
It was because of this affiliation with the party that Al-Qazzaz was detained when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s regime was overthrown by a military coup d’état on July 3, 2013.
In the more than 500 days that have since elapsed, Khaled has remained in what Amnesty International describes as “a cramped 2-metre by 2.5-metre cell, infested with insects and without natural light.”
His health has deteriorated since his imprisonment.
He is currently in hospital, where he has waited a month for a surgery on his spinal stenosis, which, if left untreated, could result in permanent paralysis.
Although the pay-it-forward initiatives raise awareness about Al-Qazzaz’s story, Attia says that they are intended to “pay forward [Al-Qazzaz’s] kindness, generosity, and dedication with random acts of kindness and generosity.”
There are currently 10 pay-it-forward initiatives.
While the majority are taking place in Toronto — such as the recent distribution of 500 flowers at Yonge-Dundas Square on November 22 — some events are also happening across Canada and the United States.
Al-Qazzaz’s plight has also impacted some current U of T students.
“I got involved because I felt that I almost owed it to him, because of what he has done and the impact that he has left on the people that I looked up to… just being around his family and seeing his kids is heartbreaking, to know that they have been without their father for, at this point, over 500 days,” says Kayria Taghdi, a fourth-year student.
Attia says that Al-Qazzaz’s friends and family will continue waiting for him “to come to Canada to get the medical care he needs, return to his passion in education, finish his PhD, and catch up on the lost time with his children.”