Refugee students grateful for support on and off campus

December 13, 2011 - 5:49am

Like many of the close to 1,700 international students at Vancouver Island University, Fatuma Hassan Ali and Noor Mohamed Maalim have had to adapt to their new surroundings on Canada’s West Coast.

Unlike almost all the other students at VIU, the two Somalia-born students are adjusting to life outside the confines of a refugee camp.

Fatuma was an infant when she and her family fled the civil war violence in her home country. Noor was four years old.

For the past 20 years, the two students lived in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee complex, a sprawling site made up of three overcrowded camps that are home to more than 450,000 Africans. Somalia, which has been wracked by decades of civil war, is the source of the vast majority of refugees.

Fatuma and Noor are among more than 70 students supported by World University Services of Canada (WUSC) local committees on campuses across Canada. Since 1978, WUSC has helped more than 1,100 young men and women resettle in Canada as permanent residents and pursue their education through the Student Refugee Program.

The WUSC Committee at VIU began sponsoring students in 2009. Through a variety of fundraising events, WUSC was able to initially sponsor one student from southern Sudan followed by a second from Somalia. The University, through the Department of International Education, is backing the initiative by providing scholarship to cover tuition fees for the students’ first year of study.

The local WUSC committee works with sponsored students to find jobs to support them in subsequent years. The program at VIU received a major boost in 2010 when students voted to support a levy of 72 cents per semester to support refugee students.

With the additional funding, VIU’s WUSC committee was able to sponsor two refugee students this year. The students appreciate the opportunity to build a new life for themselves and contribute to their families and communities. They are also extremely grateful to be half a world away from the hardships of the camps where this fall cholera has broken out and aid workers have been kidnapped.

“The situation in Dadaab is really terrifying. Security is poor and the living standard is low. There’s a lack of resources for education. Life there is difficult,” Fatuma says.

Ravi Gupta, Associate Executive Director for WUSC, is proud of the growing community support across Canada for the Student Refugee Program but points to a range of challenges to meet the enormous need for education among Africans and others displaced by violence around the world.

“We are trying to increase the number of girls and francophones that we sponsor. There is a real need to find ongoing funding to support student programs within the camps,” he says.

The Canadian International Development Agency cut off support to the student refugee program in 2004. The number of sponsored students has increased since then thanks to local fundraising efforts but Gupta says the program is nearing capacity due to the cost of overseas operations where staff are needed to assess students within the camps.

At VIU, fundraising events are held periodically to provide ongoing support to sponsored students. On Wednesday, between 10:30 am and 2:30 pm, committee members will hold a sale at the Nanaimo campus Welcome Centre featuring fair trade products including felted slippers and baby booties made by a women's cooperative in Kyrgyzstan and shea butter products including creams and muscle balms made by a women's cooperative in Burkina Faso.

The committee’s major fundraising effort is the Harambee Fundraising Gala held in May at Lantzville’s Costin Hall. The name comes from the Swahili expression meaning “all pull together” and last year’s event raised close to $4,800.

Noor says the move to Nanaimo has meant a big adjustment for Fatuma and him. Naturally both miss their families but they have found plenty of support on campus and in the community.

Noor had considered a career in civil engineering but is looking at other options for his future. Fatuma is interested in accounting with long-term ambitions to contribute to her troubled homeland in a big way.

“I would like to be an economist so I could control the economic system of my country,” she says.

Quotes from members of VIU’s WUSC Committee:

Co-Chair Paula Phelan, 4th Year, Global Studies:

“Our students have worked incredibly hard to get to where they are today and they are a never-ending source of inspiration for our committee. The community out-pouring of support for our students has been nothing short of incredible.“

“Serving on the executive of our VIU WUSC Local Committee has been the highlight of my academic experience. Not only have I gained invaluable experience leading a non-profit organization on campus, but I have been blessed with this amazing and unique opportunity to learn about refugee issues directly from our sponsored students, and in doing so, I have complemented my in-class experience with real-life lessons in cross-cultural communication."

Co-Chair Celia White, 4th Year, Global Studies and Anthropology:

"SRP (Student Refugee Program) students are our sources of inspiration and motivation. Their life stories, their knowledge of world issues and their commitment to pursue their dreams inspires all of us to do our share as global citizens.”

“Sponsoring a student is not a one way street. The Student Refugee Program has the potential to change the lives of the host community as much as it does for the sponsored student, and this has been our experience. The VIU committee has engaged the community in more ways than we ever thought possible upon inaugurating the club. We have sparked interest in community businesses to sponsor us and individuals to take action at campus events or to attend information sessions. People are beginning to see their connection to refugee issues, beginning with their relationship to the sponsored students, and reaching into the complexities of cause and effect worldwide. Most importantly, people are beginning to understand that they can make a difference, and so they are."

Student Refugee Program Officer, Kirsten Brooker, 3rd Year, Global Studies and Sociology:

“It's not only rewarding in the sense that we are able to help improve people's lives but in building friendships with these students we are able to put our own lives into perspective and realize how important community and family are. It is also quite humbling because as North Americans we can sometimes forget just how lucky we are to have the opportunities we have here in Canada. I have surely learned just as much working alongside these students as they have with me.”

Communications Chair Gabrielle Bishop, 2nd Year, Global Studies:

“Community support for the Student Refugee Program is paramount. Without help from members of our local community, the SRP at VIU would not be where it is today. Last year, as a result of seeing Aden Ahmed (last year's fully-sponsored student) in the news, a member of the community generously offered to pay for one of his classes.”

“We have received donations in the form of school supplies, household items, and clothing, among other items. When they arrive, sponsored students have little more than the clothes on their backs to start their new lives in Canada, so we are always grateful for donations that will help make their adjustment easier.”


[VIU WUSC Committee]()

[VIU WUSC Committee on Facebook]()

[WUSC Student Refugee Program]()

Tags: In the Community

Sign up for our VIU news and experts email