How the Student Refugee Program changes lives—around the world and here at Trinity
By Janet Rowe
When the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan in 2001, just after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Trinity students had a unique way to make sense of the headlines: they could speak with their Afghan classmate, Durkhanai (Duri) Ranzooryar ’04. “There was a lot of confusion about the Muslim religion, and about Afghans,” she remembers. “I was giving talks, and explaining one-on-one. I think the conversations were pretty enlightening— it was empowering me and the other students to learn about each other.”
Ranzooryar had come to Canada in 1999 via Trinity’s Student Refugee Program (SRP). Her musical laugh often punctuates her recollections, for despite the hardships in her life, she focuses on the good. Trinity students supported her, and she gave back—an experience typical of how the program transforms everyone involved.
The ripple effects can be spectacular. The Student Refugee Program is an initiative of World University Service of Canada (WUSC), a non-profit organization founded in the 1920s to promote education around the world. WUSC— which participants affectionately pronounce “whoosk”—launched the SRP in 1978. Trinity sponsored the first student in 1984-1985.
STUDENTS SUPPORTING STUDENTS
Canadian immigration law allows private groups to sponsor a refugee if the group commits to supporting the new Canadian for his or her first year. For the Trinity WUSC chapter, this means providing much more than simply a dorm room and meal plan. “Everything that a regular student would receive is what we try to give the SRP student,” says Mayte Anchante, a fourth-year history and English major, and current president of WUSC Trinity.
That means airfare to Toronto. Clothing (especially winter gear). A laptop, phone and international calling cards for staying in touch with family. Food and rent over the summer.
The total comes to about $36,000. Trinity chips in $6,650 worth of discounted residence fees, while the university waives $7,500 worth of tuition. Approximately $2,000 comes from the group’s endowment fund. But the bulk of the money, about $20,000, is donated directly by Trinity students through a $10 levy, voted in soon after the program launched in the 1980s.
And then, there are the hours of volunteer time: Anchante laughs at the idea of trying to estimate how much. WUSC Trinity is student-run as well as student-funded. “We—the WUSC leadership along with Trinity administrative staff—see profiles of the candidates,” she says, “and recommend who we think is the best fit for the College. We file all the immigration documents. We set up the student’s dorm room, apply for OHIP, set them up with a bank account, offer them a work-study program…”
COPING WITH CULTURE SHOCK
It sounds complicated, but so was getting to Canada in the first place.
Competition for the SRP is fierce, says second-year student James Thuch Madhier, a tall man with an infectious smile who is majoring in Peace and Conflict studies. Madhier came to Trinity from South Sudan via Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. “They look at your grades, your TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] score, your community involvement,” he says. “In Kenya, there is a standardized exam that is done after high school, and they use the results as a determinant. It’s a ‘do or die’ kind of exam that determines your whole life.”
Then there’s the personal interview, Ranzooryar remembers. “They realized I could live independently,” she says. “Moving away from all your family is a big change, and they wanted to see if we were able to cope with that.”
Coping skills are crucial, because culture shock can be harsh. Madhier can joke about the weather like any Canadian now, but when he arrived in December 2013 it was minus 20—a full 40 degrees colder than he had ever experienced. But it was the loneliness that was hardest, he says. “The first few days I couldn’t eat well, because in the dining hall I was sitting alone, lonely in a crowd, and it was bad.”
Trinity’s volunteers try hard to fill the gap, says Anchante. “We check in. If we can’t do it in person, we call. We have lunch together when our schedules accommodate, and go out on social activities together.” Madhier appreciated that tremendously. “They were so helpful and guided me so much,” he says.
Sorting out what courses to take is another common challenge. Mukhtar Homam (MASc ’00, PhD ’05) arrived at Trinity in 1996. He already had a civil engineering degree from his refugee school in Pakistan. “But the university had no way of gauging my qualifications,” he says. “So I had to prove myself.” Offered one year to complete five master’s courses with a B+ or higher, he polished them off in a single term.
“I wanted to know my destiny quickly!” he says. He was admitted straight into the MASc degree program.
After their first year in Canada (students stay for four years as part of the program), WUSC students are self-supporting. “I’m a permanent resident,” says Madhier, “and I receive OSAP [Ontario Student Assistance Program] loans just like any other Ontario student.” He has also continued with his work-study job at the Financial Aid Office, as well as a second job as an International Language Instructor (of Swahili) with the Toronto District School Board. He incorporates the culture and history of the Swahili language and people into his program as well.
ENRICHING THE TRINITY COMMUNITY
The SRP students bring fresh ideas to Trinity—one of the very best fruits of multiculturalism, says Madhier. Homam agrees. “Our presence provides people with a new window to a world that they would not see otherwise,” he says. “This was true for those in our classes and those we met in society. Without those encounters, they may never have had that exposure, to learn something about, for example, Afghans, and those who had gone through the life of a refugee. In the past 20 years, I have studied, taught and worked at U of T, private tutoring centres, construction companies, research institutions, government organizations … I have always met people whose encounter with me was their first with someone from Afghanistan.”
“This program gives a group of students the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of others,” says Trinity Provost Mayo Moran. “Trinity College prides itself in reaching out into the community. We recognize that our students are extraordinarily privileged to be educated here, and it’s a public duty to do something for the community.”
That, says Tadele Engida ’88 (U of T), Trinity’s second-ever WUSC student, is increasingly important in the age of globalization. Originally from Ethiopia, Engida came to Canada in 1985 from a refugee camp in Sudan, after the camp’s education officer told him about WUSC. “In the global village, having knowledge of other people and cultures is an asset,” he says. “[Supporting SRP students at Trinity] helps host students to become involved in global matters, to become global leaders.”
And that’s exactly what happened when Susan Bissell ’87 (MA ’89) volunteered for the Trinity WUSC committee in 1985- 1986. “Tadele inspired me,” she says.
“It was the beginning of my thinking that I was on the right track in wanting to work abroad, to interact with people from other parts of the world. To try to effect change,” she says, her passion clear in her voice. “Tadele was symbolic to me of what can happen when people have opportunity.” Bissell went on to work for UNICEF, where she served six years as Chief of Child Protection (as part of a 25-year career with UNICEF so far) and is now launching a new Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children.
Bissell is correct that each SRP student’s life has been transformed by simply being given a chance. Engida, who earned a business management certificate, has served as Manager of Finance for the Ontario Ministry of Social Services; he is currently a tax auditor for the Canada Revenue Agency. Homam is a civil engineer with his own consulting business and clients across Canada. Ranzooryar helped pioneer a mental health initiative program for the Toronto Afghan community, trained U.S. government diplomats and is currently in graduate school, working toward an Executive MBA in Global Affairs.
Madhier is still in school, but he already finds time to work internationally. Chosen as a young “Future Leader” by the European Commission, he has attended conferences in Brussels and New York and has spoken on refugee issues with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. This spring, he will travel to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana to raise awareness about child slavery on cocoa farms.
Volunteers, too, find that what they learn opens doors. Yasmin Sattarzadeh ’15, WUSC Trinity’s president last year, is study- ing law at Western University, with a strong interest in immigration or refugee law.
CHANGING OUR WORLD
Through his activism and work for the United Nations, Madhier has already been able to help many others uprooted by war. But what haunts him is how many haven’t had the opportunity he’s been given.
“There are so many students who have so much talent,” he says. “I am sure if they were supported, they could contribute so much to solving the world’s most pressing issues. These are people who are skilled in solving real problems, who have a huge desire to be part of the solution.” If WUSC could increase the levy or the endowment, he says, maybe twice as many students—two each year—could have their chance.
“Bringing more students is exactly what needs to be happening,” says Sattarzadeh. “Opportunities and success in life are premised on being able to access education. All students deserve that.”
As Canada welcomes 25,000 refugees from Syria this year, Anchante challenges Torontonians who hear the story of WUSC Trinity to participate in refugee resettlement in Toronto. “Even if just one person got involved,” she says, “it really does make all the difference in creating a positive and welcoming approach to the refugees who are coming.”
Ranzooryar, for one, will never forget her welcome. “The WUSC program laid the groundwork for my success in life,” she says. “There’s no doubt that I’ll remain a mentor for the WUSC community.”