Refugees find new hope at uOttawa

Posted on Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A man and two women eating breakfast in a restaurant.

From right: Daniel Makuach Akot having his first Canadian breakfast with WUSC co-president Houda Halwani and Vice-President Loujain El Sahli.

By Brandon Gillet

Seven refugees are studying at uOttawa this year thanks to the generosity of the University community and hard work of the local World University Service of Canada (WUSC) committee.

In previous years, WUSC’s Student Refugee Program (SRP) had sponsored two students from refugee camps to come to uOttawa. However, last year, WUSC held a referendum and succeeded in raising the SRP contribution from undergraduate ancillary fees “to about the price of a cup of coffee” per session per student, said WUSC uOttawa co-president David Menendez.

“We want to let undergraduates know that they made this possible,” he said. “By agreeing to pay just a little more, they’ve changed the lives of other students.”

As a result of the more generous funding, the SRP can now support three refugee students a year. WUSC also facilitates the sponsorship of four students funded by uOttawa’s Syrian resettlement effort.

The Gazette sat down recently with two of the newly arrived students.

Fled the Syrian draft

Mohammed Nour left Syria with his family shortly after the conflict began.

“When men turn 18 in Syria, they must join the military,” Nour said. “My parents were scared that I could be taken for that, as there were checkpoints everywhere.”

He heard about the WUSC program during the three years he spent in Jordan. His parents are now back in Syria but he believes they are relatively safe, as they are elderly and would generally be left alone. “Maybe I can help bring them here in the future,” he says.

Nour is currently studying finance but would like to transfer to a biosciences program once he has the prerequisites.

“I like the University and have made many friends,” he said. “Ottawa is so beautiful, with the rivers and all the nature. When I first arrived, I was amazed by the squirrels all over the place. And because Canada is multicultural, I’ve been able to explore many new kinds of food.”

Escaped conflict in Sudan

Daniel Makuach Akot was born in south Sudan during the civil war that forced him from his village when he was 11.

“The situation between the government regime in the north and the rebellion in the south worsened,” Akot said. “The regime was bombing villages, and during an attack on my village in 2004, I became separated from my parents.”

A retired soldier who was working in his village with UNICEF helped him flee. They were both airlifted to Kenya, where Akot was admitted to a refugee camp and given ration cards.

“I had reached Grade 3 before going to Kenya,” he said. “In the camp, I continued my education, provided by the UNHCR, and completed Grade 8. That’s when I heard about the WUSC program.”

He knew he would have to complete high school to qualify for a SRP scholarship, so he took extra tutoring and worked hard to graduate. He is now studying biopharmaceutical science but is thinking of switching to civil engineering.

The man who helped him get out of Sudan later decided to go back and was able to find Akot’s parents. “In 2010, he connected me with them, and they are alright,” he said.

“People in Ottawa are really nice and welcoming,” Akot said. “It’s multicultural so you might run into someone from your continent or even your country and almost feel like you’re still at home. It’s also very calm, safe and secure, which is great.

“We sponsored students just want to thank the whole University community,” he said. “We don’t take it for granted. Students here are helping others in regions where their only hope is education.”

Related stories: Students making a difference for refugees

University of Ottawa creates new fund to assist refugees

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