Refugee students get back on track at uOttawa

Posted on Monday, June 19, 2017

A 13-year-old boy in the Za'atari camp housing Syrian refugees in Jordan. Refugee youth are among those most at risk of missing out on quality schooling, particularly at the post-secondary level. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

By Kelly Haggart

Six students who came to Canada as refugees have completed their first year on campus with support from across the University community. Staff members and the student-led WUSC local committee warmly welcomed them, and provided financial assistance and practical help with issues such as finding accommodation.

Now, WUSC uOttawa and Housing Service are working together to ensure an even softer landing for refugee students arriving in September. Rather than living off-campus, sometimes in distant parts of the city, the newcomers will have rooms reserved for them on the cross-cultural floor of Marchand residence.

“This means they’ll be living with other international students and Canadians who choose to live on that floor,” said outgoing WUSC uOttawa co-president David Menéndez. “Sponsored students have told us they prefer living on campus in their first year and that most of their long-term friendships started in residence. We’re so appreciative of all the efforts of the University’s administration, and hope this is the start of more good things to come for the students.”

Rachelle Clark, director of Housing Service, noted the value of living in residence for all new students on campus. “Social engagement and support are crucial elements of academic success,” she said. “So we’re delighted to work with WUSC to create a positive living and learning environment for these students, and we look forward to welcoming them home this fall.”

WUSC uOttawa members and sponsored students on a hike in Gatineau Park. With the pre-immigration screening done in advance, the newcomers become permanent residents on arrival in Canada.

Quality support

One of the sponsored students who arrived last summer likely also spoke for the others as he recalled the initial homesickness and culture shock he felt. With no family in Ottawa, he was grateful for the ready-made social network provided by the WUSC local committee.

“The quality support I’ve received from uOttawa’s International Office also eased my transition,” the student said. “From day one, the people there showed great empathy and respect.” Professors have also been “really friendly and understanding” in his first year on campus, which inevitably involved major adjustments.

After earning an undergraduate degree in Syria, where he had aspired to be a professor, the student spent three years working and volunteering for humanitarian organizations in Lebanon. Since his arrival in Ottawa, he has made a point of volunteering, both on- and off-campus. “I know how important volunteering is,” he said. “It helps me learn about the Canadian context, make connections and get some work experience.”

He has also created a Facebook page where Syrian students already in Canada are providing new arrivals with information and emotional support. “We’re a group of about 30 students, from 20 universities coast-to-coast, who have supported about 200 newcomers so far,” he said.

Caroline Renaud, director of the International Office, calls welcoming international students to campus one of the most rewarding aspects of her job. “I’ve met wonderful students, who show incredible courage, motivation and openness to the world,” she said. “My hope is that we help give these students a sense of belonging.”

Stark figures from a recent UN report highlight the scale and urgency of the global refugee education problem.

Funding students and hands-on help

Over the past school year, three of the sponsored students, from Syria, were supported by uOttawa’s Refugee Initiatives Fund, which has raised $461,000 (including $215,000 in matching funds from the University) since its creation in 2015. The fund also supports the uOttawa Refugee Sponsorship Support Program, which offers legal training and pro bono advice that has benefited thousands of refugees and their private sponsors in Canada.

The three other students sponsored in 2016-2017, from Rwanda, Sudan and South Sudan, were supported by uOttawa’s undergraduate students through a small levy ($2 a semester) that goes toward the WUSC Student Refugee Program (SRP). In September, that fund will support three new arrivals on campus, while the University’s War Refugee Student Scholarship Fund will provide ongoing support to sponsored students already here.

The SRP, which has been part of Canada’s program of private refugee sponsorship since its creation in 1978, has brought more than 1,600 youth from 39 countries to universities and colleges across Canada. WUSC is now working with the federal government, UNHCR and other organizations – including uOttawa – to export Canada’s successful private sponsorship model to other countries.

Related story: Exporting a creative way of welcoming refugees

Support the War Refugee Student Scholarship Fund

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