April 23, 2013 - 8:30am

Education changes the world – just ask Vancouver Island University student Aden Ahmed.

Ahmed spent 18 years in Kenya’s Dadaab complex, a sprawling site made up of three overcrowded refugee camps that are home to almost half a million African people.

Three years ago, he arrived in Nanaimo as a sponsored refugee student thanks to VIU’s World University Service of Canada (WUSC) local committee, a group of globally minded students and faculty.

Today, Ahmed is thriving as a landed immigrant in Canada, working diligently towards his Bachelor of Business Administration degree at VIU. He is giving back to the community by serving as co-chair of VIU’s WUSC committee.
“My life mission is helping other refugees,” he says. “I want to give them hope.”

Ahmed’s life today is in stark contrast to his upbringing in northeastern Kenya. As a young child, he moved into the refugee camp with two older sisters when his mother, father and older brother were killed in a single day during political unrest in Somalia.

“I was one year old, my sister was six and our eldest sister was 10,” he says. “Neighbors took us across the border to safety. Growing up in the refugee camp was tough. We had no electricity or running water. It was crowded. Everything – including food – was scarce.”

Food rations were handed out every 15 days. Ahmed remembers refugees lining up for three hours or more to get 10 litres of drinking water, three kilograms of maize and wheat flour and oil. “That usually lasted about six days,” he recalls. “My sister kept us alive by selling firewood or doing odd jobs to get extra food.”

Ahmed enrolled in the camp’s elementary school, and learned quickly that education would be his only chance to change his life. He finished grade 8 with 1,000 other students but only 120 students with the highest marks were able to attend a secondary school sponsored by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Ahmed was one of them.

“My principal helped me so much,” he says. “I will never forget his kindness. He often told me that he could see a bright future inside of me.”

After grade 12, Ahmed began working as a primary teacher back at the refugee camp. Together with community leaders, United Nations officials and a donor who contributed $137,000, he helped create a secondary school within the Dadaab complex to help hundreds of students continue their high school education.

“I was only 20 but was writing proposals for donations, volunteering as a teacher and handling administrative tasks for the school,” he says. “I learned that with hard work and motivation you can do anything.”

Ahmed heard about WUSC and applied to continue his university education in Canada. He was thrilled to get a letter in June 2010 informing him that he was one of about 60 refugee students sponsored by WUSC committees on campuses across the country.

Since 1978, WUSC has helped more than 1,000 young men and women resettle in Canada as permanent residents and pursue their education through the Student Refugee Program.

VIU’s small WUSC local committee, established in 2008/09, has sponsored a total of six student refugees so far.
“I was the second refugee student sponsored at VIU,” says Ahmed. “The committee sponsored two students in both 2011 and 2012. Two more student refugees arrive on campus in August for the 2013/14 school year.”

As co-chair of the WUSC committee, Ahmed is focusing on fundraising efforts to ensure the students’ food, shelter and clothing and other costs are covered adequately during their first year in Canada. Their tuition is covered by a scholarship from VIU’s International Education department and an annual student levy of 72 cents per student helps provide some financial support.
Committee volunteers hold several fundraising events throughout the year, including the annual Harambee Gala Dinner on April 27 to raise additional money to support student refugees.

Ahmed, meanwhile, is forever grateful for continuing support he receives from WUSC members, VIU employees and Nanaimo families who have hosted him in their homes and helped him adapt to living in Canada – especially Kelli Muir in VIU’s Western Student Housing office and families like John and Sherry Rattink of Ladysmith.

“Kelli helps refugee students in so many ways,” says Ahmed. “The Rattink’s saw me interviewed on TV shortly after I arrived. They have become my family.”

This summer, Ahmed will spend four months working as a warehouse clerk at a construction company in Fort McMurray – a job his adopted Dad helped him secure.

“I cannot express how grateful I am,” says Ahmed. “So many people have helped me. VIU is like a family. Nanaimo is my family. For the first time in my life, I feel the love of parents, a real mom and dad who love me and take care of me. I feel really comfortable asking for their advice about anything. I have a home to go to on occasions like Christmas time just like any other kid.”

“Student refugees are a source of inspiration,” says VIU Global Studies and Anthropology student Celia White, one of the founders of VIU’s WUSC committee. “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.”

For information about the Student Refugee Program, and other WUSC initiatives visit To purchase tickets for the April 27 Harambee fundraiser in Nanaimo contact or call 250-797-5749 or 250-505-4950. Tickets are $55 for community members and $40 for students. All proceeds go towards sponsorship of the incoming refugee students at VIU.


ABOUT VIU: Vancouver Island University is Canada’s west coast university. Known as a centre of excellence for teaching, learning and applied research, VIU offers a diverse range of certificate, diploma and undergraduate and master degree programs to more than 18,000 students on campuses in Nanaimo, Powell River and Cowichan, and at the Parksville-Qualicum Centre. For more information visit

Janina Stajic, Manager, Vancouver Island University
P: 250.740.6288 E: Twitter: @VIUNews

Tags: In the Community

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