Sudanese refugee studying at U of M discusses struggles and achievements

Abbas Abdelrahman Ali is a Sudanese refugee studying at the U of M. Photo by Miguel Yetman

Abbas Abdelrahman Ali left Sudan for Jordan in the fall of 2013 amidst violent police clashes and political conflict.

During his time in Jordan, Ali, 26, did not have the documentation in order to work legally.

“It was a very terrible situation,” he said. “We tried to work – sometimes illegally – because you need to rent your house. You need to eat.”

Ali said that despite their work, there was no obligation for employers to pay undocumented, illegal workers and people would often not receive their wages.

Through the World University Service of Canada’s (WUSC) Student Refugee Program, Ali was given the opportunity to become a primary resident in Canada and pursue a university education.

“WUSC gave me a great, incredible opportunity,” he said.

With the help of the program, Ali settled in Winnipeg to attend the University of Manitoba. He is currently enrolled in English language studies courses in preparation for pursuing a degree program. He said he plans to study engineering.

After graduating, Ali said he wants to help Sudanese refugees in neighbouring Chad.

Compared to destabilized regions that receive worldwide attention like Iraq and Syria, Ali said Sudan is neglected by the media “in spite of the conflict in Sudan still getting worse every day.”

“The media,” he said, “should pay attention to the whole world.”

Global concern

In an October lecture presenting her research into settling refugees in Canada, University of Manitoba sociology professor Lori Wilkinson said the number of refugees in the world is increasing exponentially.

In 2004, 37.5 million refugees were displaced worldwide. This year, there are more than 65.3 million refugees – the highest number since World War II, Wilkinson said.

The majority of displaced people live near a conflict zone. Overwhelmingly, refugees upended in 2016 come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Lori Wilkinson discusses resettling refugees in Canada. Photo by Megan Colwell.

Lori Wilkinson discusses resettling refugees in Canada. Photo by Megan Colwell.

Wilkinson said most refugees aren’t fleeing to developed nations but to the less wealthy countries near the conflict zones they are trying to leave behind. The increasing burden to host the refugees falls on these less-developed nations.

According to Amnesty International, the top refugee host countries this year include Turkey, Lebanon, and Pakistan, as well as Jordan, where Ali spent years as a refugee.

Less than three per cent of refugees worldwide actually live in a developed nation such as Canada.

Refugees in Canada

Refugees who do land in Canada often come in one of two ways: either through private or government sponsorships.

Privately sponsored refugees often have family already living in Canada and more than half – 57 per cent – speak English. Government-sponsored refugees are less likely to have family or other contacts in Canada, do not speak English, and are generally younger.

The language barrier creates a problem for many of the government-sponsored refugees looking for work.

Other barriers to work include large gaps in refugee employment records, a lack of references, and a need for Canadian experience to be hired.

In 2013, 11 per cent of refugees in Manitoba were unemployed. Refugees in Alberta faced only five per cent unemployment. However, more than 28 per cent of refugees in Saskatchewan were without work.

Discrimination

In spite of the sponsorships and aid, refugees and other immigrants face racism and discrimination after arriving in Canada, Wilkinson said in an interview.

“I often have students that’ll tell me things like ‘I didn’t realize I was different until I came on campus and people started treating me differently,’” she said.

An online petition to stop Syrian refugees from coming to Canada has more than 48,614 signatures and Wilkinson said a Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration study found Canadians have a more negative perception of Muslim immigrants and refugees.

“If you look at the polls from this year and years prior, there are about a third of Canadians that are still threatened by immigration for various reasons,” she said.

“They feel like immigrants are going to be taking their jobs, they might be making a threat to the cultural cohesion of Canada [or] maybe they hear that religion will be rammed down their throats.”

However, she said, there is potential for change.

“Some of the newer research says that the more we get to know each other, the less discriminatory that we are.”

Education

Once in Canada, it can prove difficult for refugees to verify their previous education, as governments often destroy academic records after refugees flee, Wilkinson noted.

People don’t think to bring their high school diploma, she said, adding that it can be almost impossible to verify a transcript if the institution has been destroyed.

Due to their inability to prove what the highest form of education they received was, refugees are often over-skilled for the jobs they hold, said Wilkinson.

Of refugees that have a university education, 43 per cent of women and 35 per cent of men hold jobs that require a high school education or less. In contrast, only 15 per cent of Canadian-born people with a university education hold these types of jobs.

Many refugee children have never attended school or have gaps in their education because of time spent in refugee camps or travelling to a host country. The problem of access to education is amplified by the language barrier.

“Research out of Alberta shows that 74 per cent of [English as second language] students actually don’t finish high school,” said Wilkinson in her lecture. “Or they do finish high school but they don’t have the right credits they need to go to on to get a college certificate or a diploma.”

However, Wilkinson said refugee children find success catching up and average learning two years of material in one year of school.

Many refugee youths also go on to a university education. This summer, Statistics Canada released a study that showed 29 per cent of government-assisted and 32 per cent of privately assisted refugee youth have earned university degrees – both higher than the 24 per cent of Canadians who graduate university.

Community

When Ali first arrived in Winnipeg, he said he didn’t know anyone.

After the Jordanian government deported hundreds of refugees back to Sudan in December 2013, Ali said the WUSC rescued him.

The organization helped him – and many others – find a home in Canada and become a student at the U of M.

When he landed at the airport in Winnipeg, a group of people he had never before met welcomed him to Canada and to the university.

He said they showed him his new house, took him shopping, and brought him to 3D movies to help him settle in to his adopted home.

“They were my family already before I came here,” he said.

“We are like a family. Not just for me, [but] other people who came from WUSC or who are coming, they don’t suffer from any kind of terrible situation because we are family.”