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Universities step up to aid Syrian refugees

Institutions are working to privately sponsor refugee families and to help bring student refugees here to study.


As the civil war in Syria continues to displace the country’s citizens at an alarming pace, Canadian universities are launching efforts to help alleviate the growing refugee crisis. Several institutions are working to privately sponsor refugees while dozens more are partnering with the World University Service of Canada to support student refugees.

“This is a global tragedy and all institutions, all Canadians, should respond,” said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada. It’s particularly important for universities to do so especially when it comes to student refugees, he added. “Universities are the pathway of opportunity and the chance for new beginnings,” he said. “It’s tremendously important to give those opportunities to student refugees.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are more than four million Syrian refugees registered in camps in nearby Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. More continue to flee with an average of 6,000 a day arriving on European shores, often on dangerously overcrowded boats and flimsy vessels. Almost 500,000 have arrived by sea this year alone. Millions more are displaced within Syria.

In Canada, among the first to respond to the crisis was Ryerson University. It partnered with Lifeline Syria, a community organization that aims to privately sponsor and resettle 1,000 refugees in the Toronto area over the next two years. Members of the Ryerson community – including President Sheldon Levy – agreed to lead 25 sponsorship teams, which must raise $27,000 each to support a Syrian refugee family for a year.

The University of Toronto, York University and OCAD University have also joined in and the four institutions together are aiming to sponsor 75 families or 300 people, said Wendy Cukier, vice-president of research and innovation at Ryerson and a founding member of Lifeline Syria. Hundreds of student volunteers are also involved, looking at possible housing options for the refugees and helping to update a refugee settlement handbook.

The situation offers students not only the chance to help out but also provides “an enormous opportunity” for experiential learning and applied research and ties in closely with Ryerson’s commitment to social innovation, Dr. Cukier said. She expects the refugees will begin arriving in early 2016, although it’s possible the process may be accelerated with the election of the new Liberal government. Prime Minister designate Justin Trudeau reiterated to CTV News after the election that he would deliver on his promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of this year.

Dozens of other Canadian universities and colleges are partnering with World University Service of Canada, a non-profit agency that has been sponsoring student refugees since 1978. The response “has been absolutely incredible,” said Chris Eaton, WUSC executive director. This year the organization has sponsored 86 students including 10 from Syria. An additional 19 Syrian students have been pre-selected and are awaiting resettlement, he said. But Mr. Eaton expects that number to increase substantially given the enthusiastic response from universities and colleges in the face of the escalating crisis. He says WUSC expects to bring in more than 200 students next year from Syria and other conflict zones where the organization has long been active, including camps in northern Kenya and in Malawi.

Since its founding, WUSC has sponsored more than 1,500 refugees from 37 countries. The organization has officers working in refugee camps to identify and select qualified students. Once the students obtain official refugee status they can immigrate to Canada as permanent residents, entitling them to pay domestic tuition fees, apply for student loans and grants, and work. (Under the federal government’s revised rules, the visa requirements have been eased for Syrian refugees.)

WUSC’s Student Refugee Program is financed through participating institutions. At some universities it is supported through the fundraising efforts of student-led local committees while at others it is funded through a student levy usually approved by referendum. Some university administrations also contribute to the effort through tuition waivers, scholarships and bursaries, and housing support. The schools must pledge to sponsor a student for a minimum of one year although each institution determines how long to continue the support beyond the initial 12 months. For many of them, it comes down to choosing to support one student for a longer period of time or supporting more students for shorter periods, Mr. Eaton said.

WUSC issued a call in September to universities and colleges asking them to increase their support for the student refugee program and many responded including the following:

  • The University of Alberta created the President’s Award for Refugees and Displaced Persons that will cover the tuition and living costs for up to 10 Syrian refugees starting in January 2016.
  • The University of Regina committed to matching a pre-existing student levy for refugee sponsorship that will allow the school to accept six students a year.
  • Western University plans to establish student awards for 10 Syrian refugees that will cover tuition and living expenses. It is also working with a community-based organization in London, Ont. to privately sponsor a refugee family. And it is working with Scholars at Risk, an international network of institutions that supports scholars who face human rights abuses, to identify Syrian scholars and bring them to Western.
  • In addition to creating five new scholarships for refugees, the University of Ottawa, through its faculty of law launched the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program, which will provide free legal help to Canadians wishing to privately sponsor refugees. It also launched a new 16-month postsecondary certificate program on community mobilization to be offered at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. The hybrid (online-onsite) program will accept 30 students and will be open to refugees and other students. It will be tuition free for all participants in Lebanon. Applicants without official documents will be accepted through an equivalency testing process and those that require it will receive English language support.

Student refugees awaiting resettlement face many hurdles, said Christina Clark-Kazak, director of York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies. They often lack official transcripts and other academic documents, which means their previous education may not be recognized by sponsoring institutions, she said. Language may also be a problem.

The civil war that sparked the refugee crisis has had a devastating impact on the higher education system in Syria where universities have virtually shut down, said Dr. Clark-Kazac. It isn’t clear how many of the displaced are of university age. But, despite the efforts of universities in Canada and elsewhere, access to postsecondary education remains out of reach for many of the refugees living in camps. “It’s a major problem because you have a situation where people can’t continue with their education even if they have a will and desire to do so,” she said. Syria was a country with a well-educated population, she added. “The longer that people are in exile and the longer the instability lasts, that’s going to have an impact on the education system in the long-term,” she said.

One area where Canada and Canadian universities could do better is in accommodating asylum seekers already in Canada who haven’t had their refugee claim assessed, said Dr. Clark-Kazak. Without permanent residency status, their only option of accessing postsecondary education is by paying international student fees, which for many people “is completely prohibitive,” she said.

While students and faculty members have reacted to the refugee crisis “in extraordinary ways,” efforts by the former federal government fell short, according to an open letter to the government dated Oct. 13, which was signed by more than 400 university and college faculty members and researchers. The letter noted that Canada has an important history in refugee resettlement including Hungarians in 1956, Czechs in 1968, South Asians from Uganda in 1972, Chileans in 1973 and some 60,000 Vietnamese between 1978 and 1980. But this time Canada’s efforts have lagged compared to those of other countries. “The international refugee regime is based on the principle of burden-sharing,” the letter says. “At the moment the government of Canada is burden shirking.”

The letter called on the government to increase significantly the number of refugees to be resettled in Canada; to speed up the resettlement process to have the refugees here by the end of 2015; and to increase the amount of government financial assistance provided to resettle refugees, including those assisted through private sponsorships.


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