University of Manitoba, UMSU sponsor Syrian refugee

More money from student fees for refugee resettlement could be forthcoming

Photo by Chantal Zdan

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The University of Manitoba has welcomed a new student from Syria this semester after the university’s administration, in conjunction with the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU), sponsored a refugee from the war-torn country.

The U of M administration announced in November 2015 their decision to provide in-kind and financial support to a Syrian student. Since then, UMSU has agreed to partner with the university to equally share the costs.
These costs include tuition, residence, and living expenses, as well as immigration and travel fees over the span of the two-year sponsorship.

The sponsorship was spearheaded through the local chapter of the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) for the U of M. The committee has been sponsoring and aiding refugee students with their post-secondary education at the U of M since 1981 through the student refugee program. Twenty-seven students from around the world have since been sponsored, including students from South Sudan, Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda, Vietnam, and Ethiopia.

According to David Arenas Oropeza, WUSC board member and service learning coordinator at the student life office, the additional support from the university is allowing the committee to spend more money on increasing the number of students it sponsors per year from one to four beginning this September.

“The university wanted to do something about the situation,” said Oropeza, referring to the ongoing humanitarian crisis facing Syrian refugees.

“So there were different consultations at the executive level to decide what as a university community we could do. What the university decided to do was to work with our organization to support one student within this period of two years.”

“This is going to allow our local committee to use funds that would normally go to tuition or to residence to be allocated for other sponsorships,” he added. “But this was something we were already thinking about, how to save money to bring in more students. The need is massive.”

WUSC is a non-profit international development organization based in Ottawa with programs both overseas and in Canada. The student refugee program is their primary program in Canada.

According to Oropeza, the student refugee program is a joint effort between WUSC, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and different organizations within the refugee camps in the region.

He added that WUSC chooses potential students for the program by going through the applications submitted and working with government agencies to ensure the students chosen are ones who have no other alternative for post-secondary education. The agency then contacts different local committees across the country to sponsor the selected students.

According to Oropeza, the committee provides a financial, social, and emotional support network to help students with the transition once they arrive.

“WUSC’s student refugee program seeks to provide a durable solution for someone that is in an overwhelming situation,” Oropeza said.

According to UMSU president Jeremiah Kopp, the financial support the union is providing comes from its endowment fund.

Spending money from the endowment fund does not require UMSU council approval because the fund acts as an incorporated registered charity owned by UMSU and governed by a separate board of trustees. The board is comprised of students, members of the community, and members of the UMSU executive.

According to Kopp, the cost of this co-sponsorship will be $32,000 from the endowment fund.

“It’s a really unique opportunity when you are able to enrich the student experience at the University of Manitoba, while aiding a significant humanitarian crisis in the world,” Kopp said.

“The students at the University of Manitoba will benefit from meeting and getting to study with the Syrian student who is joining our classes. It’s going to be a very special relationship.”

Shauna Labman, law professor at the U of M and a specialist in immigration and refugee law, notes that there is an increased interest among institutions and communities in Canada to do more to help those affected by the Syrian civil war and other regions in crisis.

“I think this is a year of incredible energy and attention to refugees in general, to resettlement, to private sponsorship, and to have this wave of interest in activism with people willing to open their doors and pockets to support refugees,” Labman said.

“I think the university’s decision to respond to that in a way that is contributing to a program that was already in operation and will continue to operate is excellent.”

Funding for the WUSC committee currently comes from a levy of $2.50 administered by UMSU.

According to Oropeza, the committee is considering what could be done to increase their current level of funding through the union.

“There are other universities in Canada that provide a lot more resources to their sponsored students,” he said. “Not just from the local committee, but from their university. As a member of the community, I believe that universities and colleges can do a lot of good.”

An example of a different kind of response taken by a Canadian university is Ryerson University’s Lifeline Syria challenge.

The challenge is a joint project between Ryerson, Ontario College of Art and Design University, University of Toronto, and York University to support the citizen-led organization Lifeline Syria.

Lifeline Syria’s goal is to coordinate the sponsorship of 1,000 Syrian refugees to the Greater Toronto Area over two years. The goal of the challenge is to sponsor 75 refugee families, or approximately 300 refugees.

According to Kopp, UMSU’s next council meeting, scheduled for Jan. 28, will address the WUSC committee’s proposal to increase their funding.

“I’d love to see more investments taking place of this nature,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful for everyone involved.”

Mujtaba Jalil, UMSU international students’ representative, said this initiative is a good start but adds that more should be done to address the needs of all international students at the university.

“A lot of people are now coming to a country like Canada because Canada is a much safer place, and they think there is a lot of opportunity to build their life,” he said. “So from that perspective, I’d like to see the university take more of an interest in what the international students are looking for when they come here and what kind of problems there are.”