Students making a difference for refugees

Posted on Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Members of the WUSC Local Committee at the Mock Campus 2015 event
By Brandon Gillet

In a world rife with violence and inequality, and suffering from limited resources, students at uOttawa’s local World University Service of Canada (WUSC) committee are doing anything they can to raise awareness and make a difference in the lives of refugees.

The main initiative of the uOttawa committee is the Student Refugee Program (SRP), which sponsors students from refugee camps to come to Canada and get an education.  They aim to boost education nationally and internationally while creating awareness on campus about what is going on in the world, how people are struggling and how we are blessed to be in Canada.

“We as a nation can take some steps to help people internationally,” says outgoing co-president Justin Whitaker. “Particularly to grow and gather the resources to increase their own educational base.”

What they do

WUSC usually brings two students to campus each year from refugee camps. They aren’t people who have just been refugees at some point; they are refugees at the time they apply. They have lived in refugee camps and conflict laden parts of the world. They have experienced the lack of food, education and health care. As refugees abroad, they could likely never have the education they could in Canada.

“The ultimate mandate of WUSC uOttawa is to support the sponsored student coming to campus in any way, be it academically or financially, and help them as much as possible in their transition to life in Canada,” says incoming co-president David Menendez.

Aganze Bihamba with WUSC member Denis Suljic

This year, only one student refugee came to uOttawa, Aganze Maombi Bihamba, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“When I arrived, Erika Massoud (then co-president) ensured that I registered in all my classes and had everything I needed,” Bihamba said. “When she left, Justin Whitaker and Lyse Inamuco took over, maintaining the same level of commitment that Erika had set.” 

 Having arrived after the start of the fall term, Bihamba  had some trouble with his first mid-terms, averaging D+.

“The shock from that did not last long, since I bounced back and my grades improved in my second semester,” said Bihamba. “I am now averaging a B+.”

Eventually, he wants to attend medical school, having had a passion for medicine from a young age.

This passion stems from the sadness he felt growing up when anyone died in a way that could have been prevented; in his view, old age and mortal injury are the only causes of death that cannot be prevented. Bihamba’s passion grew at the passing of his grandmother in 2007, and was cemented just this April when he lost his mother.

For now, Bihamba is acclimatizing to Canadian culture and is looking to preparing for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) upon completing his current program.

“Life in Canada is going fine for me, although I still have to make an effort to familiarize myself with the Canadian accent,” says Bihamba.

The cost of learning

For budgetary reasons, Bihamba was the only student in the program this year. The committee wanted to be sure it could support him.

 “It’s expensive, the University waives the fees but we cover housing, food, medical or other unexpected expenses, laptop, clothing,” says Whitaker. “So it adds up quickly.”

These costs are covered mainly through an undergrad levy of $1.38 per session which all students pay for the SRP as part of their university fees.

“We, the students, are providing the means to support (refugees’) education to give them a bright future,” says Whitaker. “Each one of us gives them that opportunity and I think that’s something we can take pride in.”

In an effort to increase the number of student refugees and support in the coming years, WUSC plans to pose a referendum question during next year’s SFUO election, asking for an additional 50 cents on the undergrad levy as well as to extend it to graduate students.

To increase awareness and help the sponsored students integrate, WUSC holds events throughout the year, like symposia, panel discussions and social events. A major annual event is its mock refugee camp. The committee sets up UN tents in the University Centre so students can get an idea of what it would be like to live in a refugee camp.

“We try to simulate as close as possible what someone would have to face every day,” says Menendez. “We try to replicate the simplistic food (rice and pasta), and we have the sponsored student talk about whatever they are comfortable talking about.”

This Friday, WUSC will take part in an event titled Living Histories: Refugees’ Journeys into Canada, as part of World Refugee Day 2015. The event will feature refugee speakers who will share their stories of coming to Canada.

World refugee statistics

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency  Global Trends report, the number of forcibly displaced individuals in 2013 was the highest on record. Here is a look at the worldwide numbers for displacement and refugee status.

  • A total of 51.2 million people forcibly displaced — equivalent to 32,200 every day
  • 10.7 million newly displaced in 2013
  • 16.7 million refugees, of which 11.7 million are under UNHCR’s mandate
  • Perhaps the most disturbing, half of the world’s refugees are children under 18, the highest figure in a decade
  • 1.1 million applications for asylum or refugee status, 25,300 of which are from unaccompanied or separated children
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