Student Refugee Program: humanitarian or dwindling effort?

This is my fifth year as a student at the University of Manitoba and my first year of being involved with the Student Refugee Program (SRP). It was not until this year that I even became aware of its existence.

The SRP sponsors students from refugee camps in Kenya, Malawi and Thailand to study at the University of Manitoba. The program is funded by our student fees, with a levy of fifty cents per undergraduate student. With the donation of a dorm room and thirty credit hours from the university, the program sponsors one student every other year.

The SRP is not unique to the University of Manitoba. In fact, ours is one of many Canadian universities that support the program, which is overseen by the World University Service Canada (WUSC), a non-governmental organization that focuses on international development. On campuses across the country, the SRP is rapidly gaining support from students, faculties and administrations that are dedicated to the realization of a common goal — the achievement of a world where the right to education is not simply an article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but a reality for all.

I recently attended the WUSC 63rd Annual Assembly in Ottawa, Ontario, where I had the opportunity to meet with Canadian and sponsored refugee students from universities across Canada. Through learning about the accomplishments of their SRPs, one fact became very clear — the program at the U of M is in need of much greater support.

To begin with, our student levy is astronomically low, in comparison to that of other universities. At $2.50 per student, it is 400% greater at the University of British Columbia. Closer to home, the University of Saskatchewan allocates $7.00 from each student to the program, which allows for the sponsorship of three refugee students per year. The University of Winnipeg sponsors two students every year.

A measly fifty cents towards the fight for global education is embarrassing. Our levy is the lowest in Canada and has not increased since the U of M sponsored its first refugee student in 1985. The difference between fifty cents and two dollars per undergraduate student is the difference between sponsoring one refugee student every other year and two every year. It wouldn’t take much more money to do a lot more good.

What our university has to offer to those students has proven to be far from sufficient. After the sponsorship year is over, the sponsored refugee students are on their own to finance living arrangements and additional courses. At UBC, Awards and Financial Aid provides bursaries for refugee students that include tuition fees and a book allowance for up to three students per year for the entire duration of their academic program. This helps students facing the challenges of adjusting to life in a new country. It helps them achieve success through obtaining undergraduate, masters and PhD degrees and go on to pursue meaningful careers.
It has been proven by other universities that greater institutional support leads to higher retention rates. With the combined will of the student body and university administration, the program has the potential to generate great success rates.

Of the last four students sponsored by the U of M, only two have pursued post-secondary education beyond the initial sponsorship year. When the university chooses to sponsor refugee students, it has a responsibility to ensure that those students are placed in an environment that fosters their success in building a new life in Canada and obtaining a degree. It is irresponsible to bring refugees from foreign countries and support them for only one year, and unreasonable to then expect them to succeed academically.

The far reaching effects of successfully sponsoring refugee students cannot be underestimated. Dahabo-Noor Abdi was sponsored by Brandon University in 2004 and obtained a Bachelor of Science (Honours) from Carleton University. She has since returned to Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, to mentor young girls on the importance of staying in school. She has seen the changes that the program has made in students’ attitudes toward education in the camps. Stories like hers serve as beacons of hope to hundreds of thousands of youth in refugee camps, particularly to girls who face additional barriers to education.

The SRP is an opportunity for us to effect meaningful change in the world. Not only can we follow the humanitarian examples of our counterparts, but we can also become leaders in the pursuit of the universal right to education. As Margaret Mead has said, “[May we] never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Jillian Nichols is a third-year law student at the University of Manitoba.