September 26, 2018 - 9:00am
NANAIMO, BC: Becoming a Canadian resident and studying at university was an opportunity Salem Abdullah never imagined possible until four months ago. Thanks to Vancouver Island University (VIU)’s World University Service of Canada (WUSC) local committee Abdullah is pursuing his passion in a new country. Abdullah and Emmanuel Lokolong, a refugee from Kenya, are two students sponsored this year by VIU’s WUSC program.
“Being here is more than perfect,” he says. “Most importantly, I feel safe.”
Abdullah remembers his childhood in Syria as a happy time, but as war took over the streets, it transformed into a place he could hardly recognize.
“When I did my high school exams, there were bombs falling just outside,” he says. “The militia control the cities, making it extremely hard to move and access enough food. Access to food is the biggest problem.” Abdullah adds the government and opposing militia control the media outlets in order to promote their side of the war. “It made a huge difference in Syria,” he says. “How can you convince someone to pick up a gun and fight?”
Watching the co-opting of the media inspired Abdullah to pursue a career in journalism. “I want to show that we can turn our story around in a positive way. We can do it. This is especially important for my people after this war,” Abdullah says.
After completing a year of university in Syria, Abdullah fled to neighbouring Lebanon to seek refuge – putting his post-secondary ambitions on hold. For the next four years, Abdullah worked a variety of jobs because attending university as a refugee was virtually impossible to do. “For four years I lost hope I would ever go back to school,” he says. “So getting this opportunity has been the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
WUSC is a Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to improving education and employment opportunities for youth around the world. WUSC matches refugees with partnering universities that offer the programs requested. Since 2008, VIU has sponsored two refugee students every year for the students first year of studies; this includes living expenses, tuition fees, and supporting them socially as they adjust to a new country. The unique sponsorship program is funded through a student levy contributed by VIU’s Student Union (VIUSU)and financial support from VIU’s Faculty of International Educationand 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.
“The Student Refugee Program is led by students who want to make a difference in their community,” says Darrell Harvey, VIU’s Co-ordinator of International Projects and Internationalization. “The group truly demonstrates what it means to be a global citizen.”
VIU Nursing student Nadifo Abdi is a past refugee student of the program, and now pays it forward by supporting other students as the co-chair of the VIU WUSC Committee.
“Before I arrived at VIU, I was scared I would feel alone, but people were so welcoming and supportive,” she says. “Someone was kind enough to help me, so I want to do the same for other refugees.”
Abdullah is one of two refugee students sponsored this year in the student-to-student sponsorship program at VIU.
Emmanuel Lokolong, the second sponsored student, grew up in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. His parents, originally from Uganda, fled to Kenya to escape political violence, and have been unable to return. Lokolong considers Kenya as his home, although due to his refugee status, he could not achieve naturalization there.
After experiencing the health care system in Kakuma, Lokolong decided he would dedicate his efforts to join the medical field. “My passion is to become a nurse, then hopefully after completing my degree at Vancouver Island University, I would like to go to medical school and become a doctor,” he says.
Lokolong hopes to return to Kenya after his studies to provide education about immunizations and health practices to the community at Kakuma.
Lokolong’s and Adbullah’s aspirations to make a positive difference would still only be a dream if it were not for the support of the students at VIU.
“Being part of the WUSC committee I think helps people understand what it is like to come into a culture different from your own, and puts a real human behind what you hear in the news about refugees,” says Abdi.
No matter how different other cultures may seem to one another, Abdullah says people all share a common belief.
“All people want is just a chance – to live a safe life firstly, and second for a better life through education.”
Rae-Anne LaPlante, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University