World University Services of Canada Student Refugee Program in 2020: A Year in Review

Local Committee waiting for Rawan and Aeid’s arrival at Vancouver Airport in August, 2019.

Winter 2021 semester marks the beginning of a new year, wrapping up a particularly difficult year in 2020. Hats off to all staff and students who gave their all to help Columbia College overcome one of our biggest challenges, emerging as strong as ever!

Even though 2020 was a hard year, we would like to start the semester off in celebration of our Charitable Programs, highlighting our first year involved with World University Services of Canada and the Student Refugee Program. Over the next week we will be introducing this program to staff and students at CC, celebrating the arrival of our newest student and celebrating the transition off of support for our first two students. Continue reading to learn more about the program, our students, and how this fits into our Charitable Programming within the newly formed Institute for Equity and Advancement in Education!

As a registered charity and a non-profit dedicated to the advancement of education, Columbia College can approach higher education in completely unique ways. The rapidly changing world offers an opportunity for the College to pilot new and alternative approaches for students to access education and reach those who have experienced significant barriers to education. As such, responding to the wave of Syrian Refugees in 2016, Columbia College piloted our Resettlement Bursary and Internal Claimant Programs. Since 2016, these programs have provided equity-based bursaries to 64 youth with refugee backgrounds, ensuring these students have equal opportunity to succeed in Canada. To date these students have achieved monumental success, earning high school diplomas, entrance into leading universities like UBC and SFU, and improved their language skills enough to successfully enter the workforce. If you’d like to hear more about the success of some of these students, please feel free to watch our interview with the Kashto family here!

Building upon our success in the Resettlement Bursary Program, Columbia College partnered with World University Services of Canada and the Student Refugee Program in Fall, 2019, beginning our journey in direct refugee resettlement programming.

Part 1: The Global Refugee Crisis and World University Services of Canada

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), by the end of 2019 there were 26 million refugees and 79.5 forcible displaced people worldwide, of which 40% are children under 18 years old. Five countries are suffering the greatest impact with 68% of all refugees originating from Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan South Sudan, and Myanmar. Neighboring countries continue to shoulder this burden as developing nations currently house 85% of refugees. Canada, however, has emerged as a leader in Refugee Resettlement (granting Permanent Residency to refugees in a third country) as we continue to resettle the greatest number of refugees in the world, accepting over 28,000 in 2019.

The Global Refugee Crises has devastating impacts on refugee youth’s ability to access education. World University Services of Canada (WUSC) and the Student Refugee Program (SRP) have pioneered innovative solutions to address this as only 24% of refugee youth will finish secondary education and only 3% will access post-secondary education in their lifetime. By partnering with the UNHCR in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Lebanon, and Jordan, WUSC resettles over 130 refugee youth through the SRP, directly addressing this gap in access to education. Colleges and Universities across Canada act as the primary sponsor for these students through Local Committees (LC), providing social, academic, and financial support for 12 months minimum. These students arrive in Canada as Permanent Residents and under Local Committees guidance, are given the tools to succeed and restart their lives in Canada; this program is the only program in the world connecting refugee resettlement with educational opportunities abroad!

By February, 2019, Columbia College’s WUSC Local Committee set in motion the process of resettling our first SRP students, building a team of dedicated staff and students on campus to welcome our first two students in Fall, 2019 from Jordan. In 2019, Jordan hosted nearly 800,000 registered refugees like our first SRP students, Rawan and Aeid, who fled conflicts in Yemen and Syria. Durable solutions for refugees remain a challenge for hosting nations as limited domestic resources often limit the capacity for adequate, long term solutions. Therefore, resettlement in a third country like Canada remain highly attractive and require direct partnerships to ensure successful resettlement. By the end of 2019, over 5000 refugees departed Jordan to rebuild their lives in a third country, with 14 students coming to Canada through WUSC, two directly to Columbia College. The real needs of resettlement, however, are nowhere near being actualized, therefore, refugees often wait several years before any opportunities arise for resettlement.

After 5 years of false promises and unrealized potential living as a refugee in Jordan, Rawan and Aeid applied to WUSC’s Student Refugee Program to secure a future in Canada. Nearly one year passed and finally their call was answered—they were selected to be among the 130 students coming to Canada to start school in September 2019. Fear and excitement set in as in this attempt at a better life, Rawan and Aeid had to say goodbye to their families, forfeit their life in Jordan and depart to Canada- alone. Aeid spoke about this challenge as he was unaware that he would not be able to travel to Jordan again, potentially saying goodbye to his family in Jordan forever, or at least until obtaining Canadian Citizenship. The decision to start a new life was both exciting and heartbreaking at the same time.

Despite all the suffering and barriers Rawan and Aeid faced in their youth, they set out on an incredible journey to Canada, arriving on August 22nd, 2019. Chelsey Acierno, responsible for overseeing the SRPs implementation on campus, reflected on the weeks leading up to their arrival: “it was a feeling I can’t really articulate. I’ve never been so excited and proud in my life, but the fear was also crippling. Knowing everything these students had been through and their sacrifices, I couldn’t help but worry about the consequences of our Local Committee (LC) not being able to provide the support they needed. However, the minute they came through the doors at YVR, I felt pure joy. I have never been so proud to live in a country that provides opportunities for those seeking a better life.” Rawan told us that although she did not understand why, she knew from the minute she entered Canada, that this country would protect her—something she’d never experienced before in her life. Chelsey added “I saw the look of fear on their faces, but more importantly, I saw pure determination and perseverance. I knew it was going to be hard, but I knew everyone was up to the challenge. I knew this experience would change my life forever as well.” The next few weeks were dedicated to ensuring both students settled into their new life in Canada with the support of CC’s LC.

“People often said I came to Canada for a better life, but I didn’t come here for a better life. I came here to have a life, a basic life. A life where I have opportunity, any chance.” Rawan explained that, although she was safe with her family in Jordan after fleeing Yemen, life in Jordan was devoid of any future. “It was like a circle. We’re sitting here, waiting for nothing.” Refugee youth face this challenge of securing reputable employment or valuable education, tools necessary to secure a decent living standard. Aeid also expressed similar issues as he was given the opportunity to study in Jordan, but it was a dead end. “I was offered a scholarship to study pharmacy in Jordan for 4 years. However, once you were done this program no one would hire you as hospitals and clinics would only hire Jordanians, even though it was the same degree. This credential was also only valid inside of Jordan, therefore it held no value within the greater region if I ever left Jordan.” Therefore, resettlement to Canada through the SRP program meant both students could access higher education and have the ability to work in Canada was an opportunity they couldn’t let pass, no matter how hard it was going to be to leave their family behind.

The first two months in Canada was dedicated to re-entry into the academic world for Rawan and Aeid, something they had been excluded from for over 4 years. Fortunately, both students were able to finish their high school in Jordan despite fleeing their countries at 16 and 17 years old. English upgrading was necessary for both students and Aeid began studying in the ELC at English 095 and Rawan began studying at English 098. “I never imagined academics would be this hard. Everything is different and I’m still struggling every day” commented Rawan. “I met the biggest challenge of my life in Academics in Canada, but I also met the best teacher of my life. She made me love English—I would wake up excited to go to class. She cared for me and for the whole class. I never imagined it would be this hard, however, I know I’m improving.” When preparing to leave Jordan, Aeid had one of the lowest English skills of his cohort and explained “I knew English was going to be the most important first step for me. The ELC has drastically improved my conversation skills and since finishing English 097, my confidence has spiked and I’m now ready to take on academic courses.”

Rawan and Aeid continued their reflections, commenting on the little things that helped them get through the last twelve months. “I never imagined I would get this support and guidance that I do at school and from my Local Committee. I’ll never forget when after my vaccinations, Zenith took me for ice cream and just sat and talked with me. I needed this so much. Every time I see Jerica, she gives me the biggest hugs and I can’t express how much it means to me. Sarah helped me gain the confidence to join Limitless and was always there for traditional events and activities, inviting me for lunch and for dinner” remembers Rawan. Both students reflected how spaces at CC were always open to them as “Chelsey’s office was always a safe place to go when we had a problem; we never left her office without our problems being solved.” Aeid echoed this and explained how he now knows that the LC are his friends, not just employees of Columbia College; “they actually care about how I’m doing, and they want to help me.” Both students expressed that the level of support in Canada doesn’t exist in Jordan and many of their family and friends still struggle to understand why and how this is possible in Canada, but not in Jordan. “The Local Committee cared about the small details of our lives and treated us like family. They helped us settle into our new houses and helped us experience new activities such as bowling, biking, hiking, and other fun things in the community.”

Part 2: Academics & COVID-19

Rawan and Aeid had been in Canada for 6 months and were beginning to settle into life, preparing to start searching for employment and transition to their own housing arrangements when COVID-19 was creeping onto Canada’s shores. Rawan reflected that “in February, Sarah and Jerica helped me search for my own accommodation as I was ready to move out of homestay. When we found something that was in my same neighborhood, I was ready to go.” The pandemic hit just a few weeks later and threw this plan into chaos. “I really needed to be with a family--- but as I had already signed a lease, I had to move on my own. This was so hard, so, so hard” reflected Rawan. Chelsey remembers this moment as one of the worst times of the last year--- “I was devastated. A pandemic had hit and Rawan was pleading us to stay in homestay.” However, since this program provides financial commitments within a limited timeframe, Rawan could not afford to lose her deposit and first month rent as this would impact her overall sponsorship period. “I had to strong arm her into moving into her own accommodation even though she didn’t want to now. We had to teach her that decisions have consequences, and we need to follow through to move forward. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but something that had to be done.”

Aeid struggled during this time frame as his rights and freedoms became more and more limited as the pandemic continued. Remaining in homestay until April, Aeid remembers feeling more like a prisoner, unable to leave his homestay at all. “Although I was safe and my life was not in danger as it was during the war, it was like it was happening again. I had no freedom to move around, no options. I was so lonely as the mosques and everything else shut down.” Aeid knew his homestay family was only acting in his best interest and out of fear of the virus spreading, but the pandemic brough forward memories of the past, memories of not being able to be free. In May Aeid expressed that he was ready to live on his own and emphasized that this independence was necessary for his overall mental health moving forward. Therefore, the LC moved forward, assisting him to secure private accommodation and with limited stores open, was able to get everything he needed to set up in his new space!

Implementing the SRP on campus was an immense task and COVID-19 created situations and responsibilities that no one signed up for, a challenge greater than anyone could ever imagine. As grocery stores ran out of food, businesses shuttered, and this unknown virus made its way through our communities, we had two students learning how to live on their own for the first time in a new country with zero family and now, zero physical school. As gatherings were limited, the local committee had to make tough decisions as how to support these two students in this new normal. Face to face interaction was limited to one staff member and everyone banded together to assist the students transition to now a fully online experience as best as they could. “All the momentum built on campus of building a student support system fell apart before our eyes as the world moved into a lockdown” Chelsey recalls. Rawan and Aeid were alone. Safe, but alone as the CC physical community disappeared.

This journey to Canada is not what Rawan and Aeid signed up for. The promise of re-entry to education and employment was shattered by the pandemic. Although both students were able to maintain their studies, we are well aware of the new challenges associated with online learning. Social opportunities and supports have disappeared for these students, as well as economic prospects as Canada’s economy slides further into disarray. These students have experienced more challenges and barriers to their education, life and wellbeing in their 21 and 22 years of life than most Canadians will in their lifetime. Despite all of this, they’re still going. They’re studying, working in part time jobs, and moving forward. Their resiliency is an inspiration for us all to dig deep and look within ourselves to reach our full potential. Each and everyday the LC works with these students, they continue to be inspired by their courage and determination.

Rawan and Aeid have demonstrated their unwavering dedication to their education. When asked what inspires them to keep moving, both students expressed its necessity. Rawan eluded to her limited choices-- “I have no other option. I am doing this for the opportunity to access basic rights and freedoms, I am doing this for my family. I now know that Columbia College is standing by my side and will help me.” Aeid responded similarly- “because of the war in Syria, I come from zero. I lived in Zaatari refugee camp for 5 years with limited electricity, storms, dust, and heat like you cannot imagine. I will do something big with my life. I don’t know what it is yet, but I know I will do it. I have to. I have no other choice.”

Aeid graduated from the ELC in Summer, 2020, skipping English 098 due to high academic results in 097. He has now started taking academic courses alongside continued English upgrading in English 100 and is working part-time. Rawan is putting her English preparation courses into action as she completed English 100 and is now pursuing a fulltime course load and working two jobs. Rawan also participated in Limitless in March, 2020, winning her category with her talk “To Seek Asylum: Opening our Hearts to Refugees”. They are continuing with their education online and are now focused on schooling and employment as their sponsorship is wrapping up in January, 2021. Both students remain dedicated to WUSC and the SRP as they’re both active members of the Local Committee for 2020/2021 and have been critical in the preparations for our next student.

Regardless of all of the challenges faced in 2020, the Columbia College Local Committee geared up and prepared for the next student’s arrival in December, delayed due to the pandemic. Our next student is originally from Somalia and has resided in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee complex. The area was built in 1992 and houses over 200,000 refugees, making it one of Africa’s largest refugee camps. COVID-19 has created a greater responsibility for refugee resettlement in Canada and CC will not shy away from the challenge. As Chelsey stresses “this is the definition of a commitment to equitable access to education. Refugees and other communities living on the margins need support now more than ever as societies often tend to shift attention away from the most vulnerable to the masses in times of crises. We will not back down.” Columbia College remains committed to equitable access to education now and into the future through the CentRe for Equitable Access to Transformative Education, CREATE.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Meads words echo today as the Student Refugee Program is proof that a small group of people can have a profound impact on the global refugee crises, one student at a time. Our ability to provide equitable access to education at Columbia College through our charitable programming is to be celebrated and replicated for years to come. Please join WUSC and Columbia College’s Local Committee in congratulating both Rawan and Aeid on their incredible resiliency, determination, and courage to start their new life in Canada!

Part 3: Muno's journey

Preparing for the arrival of our next SRP student began in Fall, 2020 as Columbia College’s WUSC Local Committee (WUSC LC) participated in the Ride for Refuge from September to October. The Ride for Refuge is a Canada wide event which raises funds for displaced, exploited, persecuted, and abused populations, including Refugees. Columbia College raised funds in partnership with World University Services of Canada and the Student Refugee Program, calling action towards the Global Refugee Crisis and in preparation for welcoming another SRP student on campus in Winter, 2021.

Since Muno was originally from Somalia, the LC wanted to pay tribute to her journey accessing education. The Ride for Refuge had to look a little different this year due to COVID, therefore a group Bike Ride was not possible as normal due to COVID-19 restrictions. Therefore, it was decided that we would set a collective goal of “travelling” to Somalia by completing various activities such as biking, hiking, walking, running etc from September 1st to October 3rd, with the goal of reaching 13,866 KM and raising $2000. Over the course of the month, over 57 students, friends, and family participated in various physical activities, raising $2570 and travelling nearly 16,000 collective KMs. Thank you to everyone who participated! Needless to say, our first event was a success and anticipation was mounting for arrival details of our next student.

Muno arrived after many long hours awaiting processing at YVR, ready for the next step in arrival. “I was so tired from the journey, but when I saw my name on the sign from the LC, I was so excited! These people were here for me!” The LC helped Muno relax for a bit before departing, ensuring she was geared up for the winter conditions outside. “I knew about Canada and the snow and how cold it would be, but the rain is so cold too! At home we play outside in the rain, here its so cold I can’t even feel my hands!” Normally WUSC students arrive in August, but border closures and IRCC disruptions pushed back arrivals into December. Quarantine arrangements were made for the next 14 days, but Muno was prepared: “I had to quarantine in Nairobi for one month and 10 days prior to coming to Canada for medical screening after leaving the Dadaab Complex. It was very difficult, but it also helped me prepare to quarantine in Canada. In Nairobi, I got to see many different facilities than were available in the camp, so it helped me adjust.” The time in Nairobi ensured she got to meet other students coming to Canada through WUSC as she recalls the night leading up to departure, “some other girls and I spent the night talking, doing henna, eager to leave the next day for Canada; I was so excited!”

The LC arranged many events/activities throughout Muno’s quarantine to help her settle in and get to know each other, but also to ensure loneliness didn’t become too big of an issue. Days were spent online together exercising, training on academic online resources, and even a gingerbread making contest! Once Muno was free from quarantine, the LC accompanied her on various outings to help her settle into life in Vancouver, learning the public transportation system and how to safely move about during COVID. “The LC made sure I had everything I needed in quarantine and since leaving have helped me do various things that I need to learn. One thing that has shocked me is how people move in Vancouver. There is so much structure, rules for crossing the street- here its much more organized. I’m really looking forward to exploring the city more and settling into my classes at Columbia College!”

On January 21st, Muno celebrated her first month in Canada. Reflecting on the journey getting here, and all the sacrifices it took, she says “studying abroad was my dream. In grade 10, I learned about WUSC and the opportunity to come to Canada from other people in the Dadaab Refugee Complex. Each year we saw students that were departing, and I decided that I will work hard and I will go too. I spent every night reading, focusing on my studies so I could one day study in Canada” Muno had to sacrifice many things along the way as she stayed with her uncle in the camp while her mother was repatriated to Somalia. “I had to stay in Kenya if I was going to be able to study. Back home in Somalia the education is not as strong as in Kenya, so I had to become independent. I have lived away from my family since 2010.” Muno is one of just over 130 students selected by WUSC to study in Canada and one of 10 to come from the Dadaab Refugee Complex—a testament to her dedication to her education!

The LC will spend Winter, 2021 semester helping Muno continue to settle into life in Canada and raising awareness of barriers to education, particularly for girls. “One day I want to create an NGO that focuses on humanitarian goals for girls and women of Somalia. I want to build a hospital or a school to help girls access education and avoid early marriage as this is a big challenge for our community.” Through the Girls’ Education campaign, WUSC LC will be introducing challenges and struggles to accessing education around the world and particularly for young women to improve gender parity in schools. Stay tuned as the LC prepares for an event for International Women’s day this semester and continued support of Muno’s resettlement in Canada. This year’s LC is made up of 11 students from Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Indonesia, Laos, India, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria as well as 5 staff, but we’re always looking for more people to get involved. 

Join our local committee

Please contact Chelsey Acierno at [email protected] if you want to help raise awareness on campus for global development issues and assist in our resettlement programs overall.