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. The
combined efforts of the four institutions should
be enough to reach the Lifeline Syria target, 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 the news media 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.
WUSC’s Student Refugee Program is financed
through participating institutions. At some uni-
versities 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 admin-
istrations 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-Kazac, director
of York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies.
They often lack official transcripts and other aca-
demic documents, which means their previous
education may not be recognized by sponsoring
institutions, she said. Language may also be a
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 do wn, 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-Kazac. 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 dated Oct.
13, which was signed by more than 400 university and college faculty members and researchers. The letter to the government 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 lagged compared to those of
other countries. “The international refugee
regime is based on the principle of burden-sharing,” the letter said, while the government of
Canada was “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.
– rosanna tamburri