By Brandon Gillet
Despite its creators’ modest intentions, a program initiated by uOttawa engineering students to welcome local Syrian refugees has taken off and is beginning to make a real difference.
Faculty of Engineering professor Hanan Anis said that the idea for the initial friendship event came about during Difference Makers, a program jointly led by the Faculty of Engineering and the Telfer School of Management that challenges teams of students to develop a social innovation concept. This program, which originated at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, encourages students to make a difference in their communities while fostering creative problem-solving and entrepreneurial skills, said Anis.
She described how a team of uOttawa students suggested that a friendship day would be a great way to help Syrian refugees begin adjusting to life in Canada. But what these students imagined would be a fun and friendly way to meet a few of these newcomers turned into something much more substantial.
“Three hundred refugees showed up at the little SITE cafeteria,” said Anis, who went on to describe how the students were completely taken aback when they saw the crowd of refugees who had responded to their invitation.
Although many language interpreters were on hand at the initial event, the students quickly realized that they would need to overcome the language barrier to truly succeed in welcoming the refugees, said Anis. The students learned of the challenges faced by many of these refugees, including learning English and adapting their job skills to the Canadian workplace.
“We also learned that there are 85 families living in the same complex on Donald Street so we thought: Why don’t we take MakerMobile with us?” said Anis. MakerMobile is a portable extension of the Richard L’Abbé Makerspace that allows student volunteers to take 3D printers and other design equipment on the road to conduct engineering outreach programs.
The group began holding weekly events at the Donald Street apartment complex. The engineering students began by showing refugee children how to use 3D printers, but eventually the students began helping the adult refugees in other ways.
Over time, the weekly gatherings began to attract more student volunteers to share knowledge in their own fields of expertise.
“Some students conduct 3D printing workshops for the youth, while others help adults learn English,” said Difference Makers student coordinator Midia Shikh Hassan. “We have also been working to find jobs for the refugees based on their skills, so they can earn income and become integrated into society.”
The volunteers rely on Arabic-speaking students from uOttawa to help them communicate, but fortunately, this service is becoming less necessary as the refugees gain confidence in speaking English.
The students have also created a website called Work4Refugees to help match refugees with potential employers. “A couple of students are working with some of the refugees to help them set up their own businesses,” Anis said. “We will be doing this for the summer, without any funding.”
The Difference Makers group may eventually consider officially integrating the weekly events into the program, and seek to attract the necessary funding, but first they must evaluate the pilot program, said Anis.
Several of these new Canadians are looking for jobs — and many are also volunteering.
“The Syrian refugees that I have met have told me they would like to pay back Canada for its hospitality,” said Shikh Hassan.