Open Hearts and a New Home: From Syria and Somalia to Nanaimo

Photo Caption: Hassan Al Nabilsi, from Syria, and Rahma Hussein, from Somalia, stand with Ivo Nikolov at VIU. Al Nabilsi and Hussein are the 2017 VIU World University Service of Canada refugee students. Photo Credit: Vancouver Island University

October 17, 2017 - 2:15pm

VIU students help two refugees achieve education dreams


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, October 17, 2017

NANAIMO, BC: The first time Rahma Hussein and Hassan Al Nabilsi heard of Nanaimo, British Columbia, was when they were informed that they would be going to Vancouver Island University (VIU). Both students are refugees, who were living a world away when they were accepted into VIU – Hussein from Baidao, Somalia, age 21, and Al Nabilsi, age 25, from Daraa, Syria.

For Al Nabilsi, it has been six years since he attended formal school – after he was forced to leave the home he loved in Syria to become a refugee in Jordan. This was due to a bloody civil war that has been raging in Syria since March 2011.

“We entered Jordan and were forced to a refugee camp, but we hated it so we left and went to the city,” said Al Nabilsi, who taught himself English through YouTube. “There is a lot of discrimination directed to Syrians in Jordan, and it’s hard to get a good job and support your family. Syrians are not allowed to work in their field – as a doctor or an engineer.”

Hussein has lived away from her homeland for almost as long as she lived there. She came to Canada via the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where she lived for about 10 years, leaving Somalia when she was 11. The civil war that drove her family away started before she was born. At the camp, she attended school and learned English. However, as a refugee in Kenya, she had no rights to free movement and no opportunities. Her bright mind caught the attention of a teacher who told her about the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) scholarships, so she applied.

VIU’s WUSC Local Committee is sponsoring Hussein and Al Nabilsi, providing the students’ tuition, food, shelter and clothing and other costs during their first year in Canada. The program is funded through a student levy contributed by VIU Students’ Union (VIUSU) and financial support from VIU’s Faculty of International Education and the VIU International Refugee Scholarship Fund. Committee volunteers also hold several fundraising events throughout the year, including the annual Harambee Gala Dinner in the spring semester, to raise additional money to support student refugees.

“It’s a way to help people in forced migration situations, even when they are so far away and it doesn’t seem possible to do anything about it,” said VIU-WUSC co-chair Ivo Nikolov. “It’s also rewarding on a deeper level to be responsible for Rahma and Hassan’s entry into Canada, and their first impressions of the country.”

So far, that impression has been a good one for both students.

“This is it for me,” she said. “To be able to be here and study what I want, to further myself and my education, this is my dream,” says Hussein.

The way the WUSC program works, Nikolov and his counterparts take a best guess at what program might suit each student before they come, without actually having a chance to talk to them because communication can be very challenging, and until the student is on the plane, their arrival is not guaranteed. Once the student is here adjustments can be made.

“I want to be in medicine – hopefully a doctor one day. Because of this I hope to transfer into the nursing program,” Hussein said. A doctor in the family would be helpful – she has 11 brothers and sisters back in Kenya. “I miss my family, of course, but the internet makes it easier to communicate.”

Al Nabilsi is pragmatic about ending up here. “I wanted to further my education. In Jordan, I was looking at schools – they were expensive and didn’t have what I was looking for so I decided to look elsewhere, so I didn’t want to spend my money there,” he said.

He is a published graphic designer in Jordan, and wanted some education to further his career in that area. “I want to complete my degree in graphic design. I already know this is where I want to work. I also miss my family – it is smaller than Rahma’s – two brothers and a sister. It is beautiful here and the weather is very much like Syria. The internet also makes it so easy to talk to everyone.”

Al Nabilsi has one other home-sickness remedy – extended family in Vancouver, and all the home-cooked Syrian food he wants. However, the one thing Hussein would love? Anjera, a Somali flatbread, and perhaps some slightly warmer weather.

But overall, both students have felt welcomed and like they have found a new family at VIU. 

“There is so much diversity in Canada, so you never feel out of place,” Al Nabilsi said.     

To learn more about International Education at VIU, please visit the website



Aly Winks, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.740.6288 | C: 250.618.7930 | E: | T: @VIUNews

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