From camp to campus
By Natalie Gates
Noor Mohamed Maalim, 23, breezes in two minutes late in a crisp, white button-up shirt. With an easy grin and friendly greeting, he plops down two boxes of pizza on a table before his fellow club members. He grabs a marker and struts to the whiteboard where he jots a list of priorities to be covered at the VIU World University Service of Canada (WUSC) meeting. He has obviously done this before.
WUSC is a Canadian non-profit organization working in international development. They collaborate with a unique network of post-secondary institutions, private-sector partners, and volunteers to provide education, employment, and empowerment opportunities to millions of disadvantaged youth around the world, both within their home countries and abroad. The Student Refugee Support service pays for one year of schooling abroad, and living expenses. After the end of the students’ first year, sponsored students apply for student loans and often look for jobs to finance the rest of their schooling.
Some of the students around Maalim’s table are sponsored refugee students, others are not. But each leans in intently to listen to the year’s plans. Maalim and students with lead roles in the club discuss how they will greet the newly-sponsored students at the airport in the next few weeks. Hamdi Aweys, 24, her head covered in a vibrant canary-yellow scarf, says she will cook the first Canadian dinner for the new arrivals. A few years ago, Maalim and Aweys were the ones stepping off the airplane and being welcomed to a whole new world by a similar group of students.
Both were born in the midst of the Somali Civil War, which caused the deaths of over 350,000 Somalis due to starvation, disease, and violence. An ongoing conflict sparked by the fall of Somali President Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, the war has been perpetually waged by armed rebel groups competing for power. The resulting collapse of customary law and absence of a central government has led to Somalia being characterized as a “failed state.”
Maalim was only one year old when he left Somalia with his parents and four brothers. For 18 years his family lived in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Meanwhile, Aweys’ father was killed in the war three months before she was born. When she was five, her mother brought the family to the same camp.
“It’s hard to describe the refugee camps in words,” Maalim says. “I don’t want to say that nobody can live there — I lived there for 18 years — but there’s no opportunity. There are a lot of talented students there who could go to post-secondary school, but after they finish high school there’s no opportunity. If a student has a dream of being a doctor, that’s the end.”
Originally meant to accommodate approximately 90,000 refugees, the city-sized camp in the Kenyan desert has seen its numbers swell to more than half-a-million. With the growing population came the struggle to attain enough clean water, sanitation, and food. Likewise, safety was not guaranteed.
“There were some girls that were kidnapped from their houses in the camp,” Aweys says. “It was very stressful knowing there was a bad man around that was kidnapping girls.”
After completing high school, Maalim and Aweys applied to be sponsored students through WUSC. The program is competitive; approximately 1000 students across 60 schools in each camp apply every year, of whom only 10 to 20 students have grades that qualify. “In the camps there are no resources, no books, no stationary — there’s nothing,” Maalim says. “Some of the teachers there aren’t well qualified, so few students will make it to the standard to qualify, which is a B+, because even here, with all the resources, it’s quite hard to get a B+.”
Says Aweys: “I felt very bad for my friends who did a good job but didn’t qualify. Many now go to Nairobi universities, but I don’t know if they are happy with that. There are no opportunities like going abroad where they wanted, and they are still not given good jobs because they are considered refugees.”
Students who do not qualify their first time may apply twice more in subsequent years. In addition to academic testing, students do community service, which is considered an indicator that they will be prepared to contribute to their new country as well. Maalim says their degree of vulnerability to violence and other dangers is also taken into account in deciding who will be accepted.
In total, between 50 to 60 students from Kenya and another 50 from the Middle East and Asia are sponsored by WUSC annually. They may apply to multiple universities abroad, but if they are not accepted by any, WUSC will place them at one, and ensure that they are ready for the big move. Both Maalim and Aweys were accepted by VIU. Maalim arrived in Nanaimo in 2011 and has just finished his final semester, completing his Bachelor of Business with a double major in Accounting and Finance. Aweys, now in the third year of her Accounting degree, arrived at VIU in 2013.
During their first few weeks in Canada, Maalim and Aweys were full of excitement for what seemed to be the endless possibilities before them, but adapting eventually took a toll.
“When a student comes here, they are so excited to see everything and learn everything, and there are lots of people who are interested in talking to the student because he is new and he has a unique background,” Maalim explains. “But after a while the student goes through a depression. It’s like a honeymoon phase, then a depression. They feel like they want to go back to their original place.”
“My first year I was very homesick,” Aweys says. “Now when I think of my mom and miss her, I try to sing songs for her. I sent one to her recently and she was crying.”
WUSC members and other people in the community commit to supporting the students as they make this transition. Each student lives in student housing for at least their first year. Resident Life Assistant Manager Kelly Muir says residence staff keep an eye on new refugee students.
“It comes in the form of donated goods, like bedding and school supplies, and also in taking time to intentionally connect with the students to see how they are doing,” Muir says. “I wouldn’t say I stalk them, but I do keep a watch out for them.”
Many of the differences Maalim and Aweys have encountered here are profound. The refugee camp they lived in was predominantly Muslim, and faith played a large role in daily life. Aweys’ religious practices, for example, prohibit her from shaking hands with someone of the opposite gender. “I’ve had times where it is very tempting to shake hands with people I meet, but I have to explain to them I can’t.”
Differing expectations for men and women affect marriage as well. “My sister got married when she was in grade seven, so she didn’t go to high school. It’s very hard to pass your education when you have a family. Everything is done by the wife and the man does the financial path, but I don’t blame my culture because it used to be like that for all cultures. It was only recently in Canada that women joined the workforce. I find it impressive when I hear friends that are boys here in Canada say, ‘I cook for my wife,’ because that doesn’t happen back home.”
For Maalim, casual intimacy in public was jarring.
“Here, when you make a friend, your friend will just hug you. It’s a friendly hug,” he says. “My culture doesn’t allow me to hug someone. When someone did that on my first days when I was more conservative, it was hard for me to accept.” And it cuts both ways: “Back home, if I was just with my friends telling them to follow me, I would just hold their hand, but here if you do that [with the same gender], they will judge you and think you are gay.”
Some of the culture shock has been easier to manage. “When I first came here, everyone was always smiling,” Maalim says. “Back home, if you don’t know the person, you don’t smile to them. They really think there’s something wrong with you if you do.”
And life in residence took some getting used to. “I didn’t like the tiny rooms,” he laughs, “but you have that interaction with students from different cultures. It’s so beautiful to make friends with so many different backgrounds.”
Not that everyone has been welcoming in Canada. “Racism exists,” says Aweys. “Some people are very broad-minded and accept different cultures—they want to know about you and ask friendly questions. But some people don’t want to talk to you. They want to ignore you and it’s like they are scared of you.”
Despite the stark differences between the two societies, Maalim has grown accustomed to Canadian culture. “After a while we figure out the culture and we figure out our own way. At first it was a shock, but I was also interested in pursuing my education, so that was one thing that I had to support myself to keep trying, knowing that one day I could pursue my dream.”
Inspired by all the people who helped them, Maalim and Aweys joined WUSC to assist other refugee students. Maalim became a member in his first year and eventually the chair of the club. With events, weekly meetings, and sponsored students to support, it’s been a big commitment, but one he’s proud of. Now that he is graduating, he will pass on the torch to both Aweys and Jessyca Idi, an international student from Brazil, who will function as co-chairs.
Idi says student involvement in WUSC is as much about raising awareness as it is about providing support to the refugees. “There is no way we can calculate the value of a human life, and yet statistics make us so indifferent to the individuals, families, and communities that are suffering.”
The VIU Students’ Union currently sponsors two refugee students each year, and is working with the university to increase that number. In response to the Syrian refugee crisis, VIU has created the International Refugee Support Fund, with an initial contribution of $10,000 from the VIU Faculty Association, and all donations matched at 50 cents on the dollar. The initiative will fund and support a third student from Syria, as well as scholarships for university-aged children of sponsored refugee families arriving in Nanaimo in the coming months. VIU will also join and support Scholars at Risk, which assists academics who must flee violence or persecution in their home country, and provides them with opportunities to study and teach at universities abroad.
Aweys’ future goals include pursuing a degree in gynecology. “That has always been my dream,” she says. “Something I have wanted to do since high school.” She plans to work for a couple of years after graduating from VIU to save money for medical school, while Maalim looks forward to entering the business world.
Both intend to return home for a visit. “I don’t know when,” says Aweys, “but I will.”
Until then, Maalim hopes to bring his mother, who still lives in the camp, to Canada. “I’m hoping that she will be here next year. I’ll be sponsoring her since I’ll be done school and be making money.”
He’s also excited to start climbing the corporate ladder. “I want to see what changes I can make in the world,” he says with a smile. “That’s the long term plan.
“You never know where the future lies.”