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How MUN Students Created a New Student Refugee Program

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Next fall, a former refugee will arrive in St. John’s to study at Memorial University with their resettlement and first year of education sponsored entirely by fellow students at MUN.

On November 6, a referendum among undergraduate students confirmed that MUN will become the 93rd institution in Canada to create a Student Refugee Program on campus. The vote took place online with 3142 students participating, roughly 30% of eligible voters. 2923 students voted ‘Yes’ in favour of the program and the introduction of an accompanying levy that will sponsor one new student refugee every year.

World University Service of Canada (WUSC) is a national non-profit organization that facilitates the Student Refugee Program (SRP) and encourages the opening of local chapters on campuses across the country. Beginning with the placement of a single refugee student at Carleton University in 1978, the SRP has enabled more than 2000 young refugees to resettle to Canada and pursue higher education in a safe, supportive environment.

A ‘National Pride’ 

WUSC MUN has been the driving group behind bringing this program to Memorial. Five students formed the local committee in September 2018 with help from the Internationalization Office at MUN. Since then, the group has grown to involve more than nine local committee members and 25 student volunteers, all focused on the goal of bringing the Student Refugee Program to Memorial.

While the local committee coordinates the program on campus, the national organization’s headquarters in Ottawa provides support, guidance, and administration of certain program aspects. 

“Every refugee who can apply is recognized by the United Nations as a refugee… WUSC headquarters arranges English tests and other tests over in the refugee camps, because not all refugees have their transcripts with them,” WUSC MUN Co-chair Husam Basemah explains. “When you’re escaping from a dangerous place, you don’t think of taking your transcript.”

There are 92 other institutions in Canada with existing SRPs, bringing over 130 refugee students to Canada each year. With the success of this month’s referendum, MUN has become the 93rd. 

“Now the student body at MUN can be a part of this national pride,” Nabila Qureshi, Co-chair of WUSC MUN, tells the Independent. “The fact that 92 campuses already have this program in place, and even the smallest of colleges have this in place, and MUN wasn’t one of them… it excluded us from that student unity found across the country. There’s no reason for us not to be a part of that.”

By joining a national student movement, Basemah adds that the program will also help students at MUN grow and develop their perspective on the global refugee crisis. “If you want to increase awareness on campus of the refugee crisis, it’s very helpful to have a person who has gone through it and they are here. It’s easy not to care about a crisis when you don’t know anyone who has been there—but when your friend was a refugee, that increases the awareness of so many students.”

Bringing the Student Refugee Program to Memorial

WUSC MUN organized various events over the fall 2018 and winter 2019 semesters to educate students about the ongoing global refugee crisis that has displaced more than 70 million people. The events focused on raising awareness while briefly mentioning the existence of the Student Refugee Program at other Canadian institutions. 

“We didn’t start directly by going to the campaign because we wanted to raise awareness first about the refugee crisis,” notes Basemah. “At one of the events, we had VR glasses students could wear and see a 360-degree view of inside a refugee camp. Many students saw the crisis from a new level through that experience.”

In March 2019 the group partnered with the Internationalization Office at MUN to host an event in the University Centre, drawing the largest crowd of all their outreach events. Based on the reactions of students and momentum of their awareness work, WUSC MUN decided it was time to make a referendum happen. 

“Over the summer we approached all the stakeholders involved, or those we thought should be involved, and that’s when we got started officially,” Quershi recalls. “That’s when we felt, this is a campaign now.”

“We got an amazing amount of support,” Basemah adds. “The student union agreed to facilitate a referendum if we got a petition from 10% of undergraduate students at MUN, which is 1100 signatures. And we actually got more than 1723 signatures in less than three weeks.” 

The referendum gave members of the MUN Students’ Union—approximately 13,000 undergraduate students—the chance to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the introduction of a $2 per-student, per-semester levy, with 100% of funds sponsoring the Student Refugee Program.

Once the referendum was set, WUSC MUN formed the ‘Yes’ committee and campaigned in favour of the program and levy. There were no students who elected to form a ‘No’ committee, though 219 students (7%) ultimately voted against the program. Over the past year, volunteers visited dozens of classes to promote the program and encourage students to vote in the referendum. 

“Students Overwhelmingly Voted in Favour of Humanism”

Basemah and Qureshi say the reaction to the program has been incredibly supportive. “I feel very proud of Memorial University students because the support I’ve seen was incredible,” reflects Basemah. “We know that MUN students want to help, so we’re just making the process possible.” 

Qureshi also credits the Memorial community at large for coming together and voting in favour of this program: “Through the power of unity and student activism, MUN students have instated a program that is the first of its kind in the entire province. I think that’s pretty commendable.”

“The Student Refugee Program is amazing,” fourth-year MUN student Emily Laite remarks to the Independent. “At such a low price to us as Memorial University students it is giving a refugee the same opportunity to education as we have.”

During their campaign, the group also received strong support from faculty and staff as well as other universities, institutions, and organizations of various sizes. “One cool thing was that we were tweeted by the Canadian United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,” comments Qureshi. “It was really encouraging to know that you have support locally, you have support nationally, you have support internationally.” 

The local committee also worked closely with a Staff Advisor, Arif Abu from the Internationalization Office, and a Faculty Advisor, Dr. Yolande Pottie-Sherman from the Department of Geography.

“We are proud of the local committee members and the students who voted,” Abu tells the Independent. “Our students have spoken. Our students have overwhelmingly voted in favour of humanism.” 

The group’s advisors will continue to play a role as WUSC MUN plans the next phase of their project: preparing for the student that will begin at MUN in the fall 2020 semester.

“It Can Happen to Anyone”

WUSC has a long-standing agreement with the federal government as an official Sponsorship Agreement Holder, allowing refugee students who are accepted to the program to arrive in Canada as permanent residents. Incoming students also receive a pre-departure orientation similar to other government- and privately-sponsored refugees. 

Starting in 2020, one former refugee will arrive to study at MUN each year and will receive social and academic support from the local committee as well as a minimum 12 months of financial support. MUN undergraduate students, through the SRP’s $2 per-semester levy, will collectively provide the sponsorship funds that will cover costs like tuition, accommodation, self-care, books, and supplies.

“The program combines two things: resettlement and education,” explains Qureshi. “The education portion is the university, and us students rallying and advocating for that. But then the resettlement is also outside of campus. When that student arrives here, they have to interact with the larger community… so the city needs to be on board.”

Meghan Hollett, Vice-Chair for Happy City St. John’s, sees the success of the referendum as a positive thing for St. John’s and for Newfoundland and Labrador. “I’m very grateful to the undergraduate student population of Memorial for supporting newcomers… St. John’s has great potential as an educational hub and a city that is supportive. With this vote students are not only helping provide a life-changing opportunity for a refugee, but they’re also investing in our city and province.”

Qureshi, who has also volunteered with the Association for New Canadians (ANC) and the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council (RIAC) working directly with refugee families and individuals since 2016, hopes this program can spark a deeper sense of empathy and awareness about the state of the refugee crisis worldwide.

“Ten years ago, Syrians would have never guessed—Syria was a very ancient, very blossoming civilization. And yet they’re going through this. And as time progresses, climate refugees are going to be a huge thing in the coming years, so it can even happen to us,” Qureshi observes. “Our concept of safety and stability, we assume it to be so concrete. We take it for granted when, in fact, it can happen to anyone at anytime… so we need to develop strategies to minimize displacement, distress, suffering.”

“Refugee is just a title,” she concludes. “The minute a refugee lands in the country they are given the identity and status of permanent resident. So technically speaking, any refugee that comes to Canada is no longer a refugee. They’re a former refugee… Yes, they are someone who is fleeing and is in pursuit of safety. But at the end of the day, refugee is just a title. It should not define a person’s life and ‘other’ them.”

Photo courtesy Nabila Quereshi.

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