McGill reaches out to students in refugee camps

This August, the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) welcomed 74 refugees from Malawi and Kenya who will attend one of 61 participating universities across Canada this year. Two participants in the program have enrolled at McGill, both in the faculty of engineering.

WUSC’s Student Refugee Program (SRP) provides refugees a post-secondary education, a chance to gain permanent residency in Canada, and a foot in the door on the way to becoming Canadian citizens. The SRP began at Carleton University in 1978, the same year that the Canadian government changed the immigration policy to permit private sponsorship of refugees.

Canada has two official policies regarding immigration of refugees. The first is by inland claims, in which a refugee seeks protection at the Canadian border. The second is through refugee resettlement, when refugees are selected by the Canadian government to live in Canada.

“The path to citizenship … is the underlying principle of the program,” Zoe Greenwald, a U3 student, McGill’s co-chair for the SRP, said.

Allison Cooper, another McGill co-chair for the SRP, explained that while all of this year’s participants sought asylum in Kenya, many originate from different countries in Africa and Asia, and of the 1200-plus alumni of the program, many have moved to Canada from the Middle East, Africa, Sri Lanka, and Eastern Europe.

Michelle Manks, senior program officer for the SRP at WUSC’s head office in Ottawa, said that in the past, student enrollment in the program “depends [on] where conflicts are over time.” WUSC provides a means of private sponsorship “to get people out of refugee situations …and into permanent residency in Canada.”

“Most other countries don’t offer resettlement,” Manks said, as refugees in most countries are confined to a camp.

Greenwald said that sifting through applications and picking students to attend McGill was the hardest part of the job.

“It feels like you’re playing God,” she said.

It is difficult to organize educational programs in refugee camps, and programs such as the SRP may seem out of reach for most refugees.  Several students apply for each spot that a Canadian university has available through SRP.

McGill had the first choice of students. However, not being picked by McGill does not imply rejection from the program.

Last year, Manks explained that applicants simply did not meet McGill’s academic requirements, and, therefore the university did not host any student refugees. Instead, the organization used the money intended for last year to admit an additional student this year.

Since its founding in 1987, McGill’s chapter of SRP has levied a 50 cent fee per student for every semester. This was intended to increase with inflation, but remains at the same level today. Those admitted to the program receive financial aid for tuition as well as living costs. After their first year, however, they need to find jobs to support themselves.

Cooper expressed concern that the McGill administration is seeking to diminish the program’s capacity by means of “a referendum question to use [WUSC’s] funding for other purposes.” According to the SSMU website, this referendum question seeks to “support international students from developing countries if there are no eligible WUSC refugee students in any year.”

Nevertheless, Cooper spoke highly of her personal experience with WUSC.

“It really is an awesome and unique way to get involved, very much firsthand, with helping students adjust to life in Canada, learning from them and with them as we go through the [student] experience together,” she said.

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