Student Refugee Program

It is a matter of considerable pride for members of WUSC-UBC that WUSCs involvement in student refugee sponsorship began with the timely actions of the WUSC committee at UBC more than fifty years ago. In December 1956 WUSC-UBC joined forces with the UBC Faculty Association, Alma Mater Society and the University administration in order to carry out an ambitious refugee resettlement program which The Vancouver Sun later described as “one of the most remarkable stories in the history of scholarship” (The Vancouver Sun, September 28, 1996). Following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956. some 221 refugee students, faculty and staff—amounting to the entire Faculty of Forestry at Hungary’s Sopron University— were resettled at UBC’s Faculty of Forestry. UBC’s then President Norman Mackenzie called upon WUSC-UBC to assist in this massive resettlement effort, and the committee responded by arranging accommodation and a clothing drive, as well as mobilizing translation services and organizing English-language classes for the refugees. Sopron students and faculty subsequently went on to form the core of UBC’s Forestry Faculty for decades afterwards, some of whom made notable contributions to the development of forestry practices in British Columbia and Canada.

The Sopron campaign was a major inspiration for the establishment in 1978 of a national W USC Student Refugee Program (SRP). Now in its 33rd year of operation, WUSC’s internationally acclaimed Student Refugee Program has enabled more than 1 100 student refugees to leave lives in refugee camps and resettle in Canada to attend university and college. Each year Canadian students raise and/or leverage more than $2.5 million in support of the SRP. The program is made possible by a special agreement between WUSC and the Government of Canada. Students who are selected for the program are UNHCR Convention Refugees and enter Canada as landed immigrants as part of the federal government’s annual immigration quota. The W USC national office in Ottawa is responsible for selecting students for the program and ensuring that they meet the requirements of Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the admissions criteria of Canadian universities and colleges. Local committees undertake a legal commitment to support sponsored students financially and emotionally for a minimum of 12 months following their arrival in Canada, although in all cases we have attempted to help out even after the official sponsorship has expired. Each year more than 70 student refugees come to Canada in this way. WUSC is the only non-faith-based organization involved in refugee sponsorship in Canada and the only sponsoring agency that combines resettlement with education.

The Student Refugee Program has been operating at UBC since 1981. Since then more than eighty student refugees from war-torn countries in Africa and other pans of the world have come to UBC to complete their university education and begin new lives in Canada. The Student Refugee Program is run entirely by the voluntary efforts of the UBC students who make up the WUSC-UBC committee. The program is made possible financially by the generous contributions that have been made over many years by UBC students themselves through their Alma Mater Society and by the generous support of the UBC administration. Until recently, W USC-UBC also received an annual donation from the UBC Faculty Association.

The program has grown steadily in size since its inception in 1981. In 1985 W USC-UBC turned to the AMS for help and mounted a successful referendum in which UBC students voted to commit a small annual levy of 50 cents per student to support one W USC-sponsored student refugee at UBC each year. Four years later in 1989 WUSC-UBC, AMS and UBC signed a joint Memorandum of Agreement to provide a partial tuition bursary and full living allowances for two student refugees each year. The agreement, with its provision for stable, recurrent funding on a long-term basis, quickly became a model for other WUSC committees across the country to emulate. In January 1996 a second student referendum was held, and UBC students voted overwhelmingly to double the annual levy in support of the Student Refugee Program from 50 cents to $1.00 per student. The following year, in May 1997, the university’s Office of Awards and Financial Aid instituted a full tuition bursary and book allowance for up to three W USCsponsored refugee students annually, to be awarded for the duration of the students’ academic program. A third student referendum was held in 2008. UBC students once again demonstrated their support for the Student Refugee Program by voting overwhelmingly to increase their annual contribution from $1.00 to $2.50 per student. Also in 2008 the university agreed to increase its financial support from three to four student refugees each year, and to provide campus housing and a meal plan for the students for the first eight months following their arrival in Canada. These moves have placed UBC at the very front rank of universities across the country in terms of both the number of students sponsored and the degree of support that is provided to students during the course of their studies.

Despite severe personal traumas experienced in their home countries and, in many cases, significant difficulties adjusting to life in Canada, the majority of the students who have come to UBC under the Student Refugee Program have completed their studies and gone on to achieve meaningful and productive careers. There are many heartening stories of personal success. The first student to arrive at UBC under the program in 1981, Eyob Naizghit earned his MA in Geography and is now the Executive Director of the Vancouver multicultural agency MOSAIC.

Several students have gone on to earn PhDs in fields such as Physics, Pharmacy, Education and Natural Resource Management, while numerous others have earned their Master’s degrees in fields such as Mechanical Engineering, Education, Forestry, Legal Studies, Counseling Psychology, Dentistry and Community and Regional Planning. WUSC-UBC graduates of the Student Refugee Program are now employed as teachers, city planners, nurses, social workers and other professionals in the Lower Mainland, across Canada and beyond. One is a leading PhD research scientist at the BC Cancer Agency; another recently started her own NGO to assist refugees from francophone countries who are living in Vancouver, and another is Program Manager for the Canadian Organization ror Development through Education (CODE) in Ottawa.

One recent graduate has recently been hired as a public health counsellor with the Alberta Health Ministry. Several have been able to return to assist in the rebuilding of their native countries following the end of decades of conflict. One recent Arts graduate is now Director of the Department or Research and Documentation in the new Republic of South Sudan, and another who is a graduate of UBC’s forestry program now works for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) developing sustainable forestry practices in South Sudan. Tragically, one student who graduated from UBC in 1991 and then returned to Africa to aid in the Ethiopian relief effort, died there after contracting cerebral malaria.