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Michelle Manks, WUSC, Canada

The refugee crisis is immense. We can’t leave it up to just governments and UN bodies to respond, and higher education institutions are uniquely placed to provide additional, durable solutions for refugees.
February 8 2017
7 Min Read

World University Service of Canada places refugee students in higher education institutions, where students support them directly by paying into a scholarship fund through a campus-wide levy. Michelle, manager of WUSC’s Campus Engagement & Student Refugee Program, talks about the challenges facing refugee students and the recent outpouring of public support for refugees in Canada.

The PIE: What does WUSC do?

MM: We are a nonprofit organisation that works in international development, but we actually started as an organisation that worked with student groups to provide scholarships and integration support to those who had fled the second world war.

So now the programme that I work on works with student groups across the country at colleges, universities and what we call cégeps, which would be equivalent to the French lycée, to raise the funds and provide integration support, academic support, access to employment support, to refugee youth who are living in protracted country situations or in refugee contexts.

The PIE: Why is it important to do this work?

“The student groups that we work with on different campuses will work with their student union to establish a levy”

MM: There’s a number of different reasons: one, obviously the refugee crisis is immense and we can’t leave it up to just governments and United Nations bodies to respond to this crisis; and higher education institutions are uniquely placed to provide additional, durable solutions for refugees.

The other piece is the ability to create positive images of newcomers by involving students in directly supporting and integrating refugee youth into the classroom.

The PIE: What’s the model to do this?

MM: All students pay into the programme for the most part. The student groups that we work with on different campuses will work with their student union to establish a levy, and they set the levy amount based on their budget. So that’s done one time – there’s a referendum, students vote in favour or not – but almost always in favour. And then that levy lasts indefinitely, so that funding model is sustainable.

And then that same student group will often approach their institution for matching funds, so whether it’s tuition waivers, accommodation waivers, meal plan waivers, that significantly decreases the cost to the students. So that allows them to bring in more students.

The PIE: Do you provide any funding or is this all from the students?

MM: We don’t provide any direct funding. Our own funding goes towards part of our operations so that we can support the student groups, and so that we can recruit refugee students overseas to come to Canada. So that’s part of the process as well: we do the calls for applications in students’ countries, assess their language abilities with the help of partners on the ground, and then do interviews and make sure they have all the documentation, that they are registered refugees.

The PIE: When did this programme start?

“Before, refugees came as international students; now they are officially resettled through the private sponsorship programme”

MM: We started the resettlement programme in 1978, but our Canadian universities and colleges have been supporting scholarships for refugees since the late 1930s – the 1950s on a large scale. The difference was in the way that they came to Canada. So before, they might have come as international students, and then with the possibility of staying; now they are officially resettled by the institutions themselves, through the Canadian private refugee sponsorship programme.

The PIE: How does private sponsorship for refugees work in Canada?

MM: Private sponsorship allows a country to bring in additional refugees through a resettlement programme that is led by community groups – so organisations, church groups, can get together, raise the funds necessary, identify a family or connect with IRCC to identify a family on their behalf, and then take on the responsibilities that the government would usually do. They fund the sponsorship for 12 months, and social integration like enrolling your kids in school and finding a job, connecting you to a faith-based community if that’s what you want, or having your kids play with newcomer kids.

They sign an agreement with the Canadian government and the government does a screening process to make sure the group is well prepared to provide that type of support, and they still screen the refugee applicants.

The PIE: And how have the challenges to resettling refugees changed since the 1950s?

MM: There’s a lot more red tape, I think, even just in the last five years, because the demographic of students who come through the programme have very different backgrounds. So previously, we were sponsoring refugees who were born in refugee camps, who were raised there, who were able to get their documentation in their country of asylum, because they were being given the local curriculum: so in Kenya, for example, they follow the Kenyan curriculum; when they graduate they still get the Kenyan documentation.

“There’s a lot more red tape, I think, even just in the last five years”

In the case of the Middle East, Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians, they’ve fled recently and they didn’t bring their documents with them so that’s been a huge challenge in terms of admitting students. The language piece is also different. Students we’ve been resettling out of camps in Kenya and Malawi, they follow an English or a French curriculum so they already have the language skills when they apply for the programme. With the Middle Eastern students, English might be newer to them.

Then we’ve had students drop out of our programme. There are sometimes challenges with young women, so because our programme resettles individuals, often young women are not allowed to come and access the programme because they’re not allowed to come alone. So that’s something we’ve learned in the last year with the large influx of Syrian students and Middle Eastern students that we brought.

The PIE: The widely-published photo of Alan Kurdi on the beach has been cited as a watershed moment in how the refugee crisis was viewed. What was the impact like in Canada?

MM: I think that was a very important moment for Canada in particular, because that young boy’s family had applied for resettlement to Canada and his forms had been sent back. And he had applied to come through private sponsorship, and so it was a community sponsorship, and Canadians became aware of their ability to contribute and to participate in private sponsorship. It was huge. It changed our election – they weren’t talking about immigration so much and they weren’t talking about refugees in the election until this photo emerged, and then suddenly it became one of the key issues in the election.

“With any immigration programme anywhere, there needs to be the infrastructure in place by the government to process cases”

But the change in government was critical because this new government unlocked some of the barriers that prevented things from moving quickly in refugee resettlement.

The PIE: What were some of those barriers to refugee resettlement before the election?

MM: With any immigration programme anywhere, there needs to be the infrastructure in place by the government to process cases. When this new government made their commitment to sponsor 25,000 Syrians in the space of three months, with the existing infrastructure there was no way that would have been possible, and they poured immense resources into processing and screening people. And they also introduced new immigration targets.

The PIE: Since Justin Trudeau was elected, Citizenship and Immigration Canada has been renamed Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada – do you think that had an impact on public perception of refugees?

MM: That’s a really good point. Yes, and I would say in addition to that, the way that leaders are speaking about refugees [has had an impact]. Before, there was a lot of fear instilling and politicians were using phrases like “barbaric cultural practices” and it wasn’t very favourable to creating a welcoming society; whereas this new government has been very much the opposite and I think that sets the stage with the media as well. As soon as politicians are talking about it differently, the media are covering it, and then there’s a trickle down effect.

The PIE: How many students have you taken so far through the resettlement programme?

MM: In total, we’re almost at 2,000. Last year we sponsored around 160, and we hope that our numbers will stay high. We were scared that our numbers would be like a flash in the pan, but we’re seeing sustained engagements.

The PIE: Do you only place undergraduate students?

“We’re hoping our model can serve as an example for other countries”

MM: Traditionally yes, but this past year we’ve started placing graduate students as well, which has been a whole other ball game for us. Admitting someone to a master’s programme is nothing like admitting someone to an undergrad programme; the steps involved are so much more labour intensive, plus research interests are often very specific.

The PIE: What are some of the goals that WUSC working towards at the moment?

MM: Two years ago, we set a goal to double our programme in five years. We reached that last year, because of this increased public attention on refugee issues, so we’ve set a new goal to double that again in the next five years. We’re hoping to, at minimum, be sponsoring 300 students a year, but through engaging new institutions. We thought that’s where our main area of growth would be, but in the last year we saw that it was the existing institutions that increase their numbers.

But we want to continue to expand the number of institutions because that contributes to public awareness, public buy-in. And also colleges are very interesting because they provide faster pathways to employment as they’re offering one-year, two-year programmes, very practical skills.

We’re hoping our model can serve as an example for other countries who are not sure how to go about offering educational opportunities to refugees. We hope that it will inspire other HE communities to get involved in these issues because they haven’t traditionally been, with the exception of a few countries.

Our model is one of the only ones that provides durable solutions in addition to education, so we’re hoping that more countries will consider that durable, lasting solution. But they of course have to work with their governments to put that in place. So we’re looking at especially countries that are exploring the private sponsorship model already and they’re interacting with our counterparts at IRCC.

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