Student refugee finds new home at Georgian

June 20 is World Refugee Day, an international day designated by the United Nations to honour refugees around the globe, celebrate their strength and courage, build empathy and understanding for their plight, and to recognize their resilience in rebuilding their lives.

Georgian welcomed our first sponsored refugee student through the Student Refugee Program in partnership with World University Service of Canada (WUSC) in August 2022. Elaf, a refugee from Iraq who was living with her family in Jordan, is taking our two-year Biotechnology – Health diploma program and living in residence at the Barrie Campus.

We sat down with Elaf to hear about her Georgian experience and hopes for the future.

Tell us a little bit about the Student Refugee Program. The program is like a lighthouse for refugee students who dream of completing their postsecondary education. It’s made us realize we can change our lives and future, and we can transform all the disappointments we had as youth who were unable to do anything for our families or country.

We’re survivors – students who survived the worst conditions you can imagine but who never stopped dreaming and trying.

– Elaf

How did you end up a refugee? We were living in Iraq and my family left for safety reasons. We thought we were only leaving for a couple of days before we’d go back home but things went in the other direction. Each year, Iraq became worse, and we weren’t welcome anymore.

We went to Jordan but, as refugees, were limited in what we were able to do. For example, we weren’t allowed to work. We also experienced racism and were treated poorly in many instances. We survived…

My mom, two brothers and sister are still there. I hope to bring them to Canada someday.

What led you to Georgian? After finishing my secondary education, I applied to college. I worked under the table to afford school, but employers took advantage of refugees. We worked more time for less money. I worked for 12 hours to earn $10 a day. When COVID-19 hit, I couldn’t work anymore so had no funds for college. That’s when I convinced my family to let me apply for WUSC sponsorship so I could complete my education. They were hesitant but realized it was the only way for me to get a better life.

Student refugee arrives at Toronto airport and is greeted by members of Team Georgian; group photo of people in airport holding up welcome signs and wearing Georgian blue
Georgian welcome at the airport; photo by Tomasz Szumski, Szumski Media

What’s your experience been like? Georgian has given me the chance to start the life I’ve dreamed of. I’m now in a safe place where I have the right to say “yes” and “no” and where I’m not judged for my beliefs or excluded because I’m different. From the first day I arrived, Georgian made me feel at home.

Everyone at Georgian takes care of you. The staff and my professors made sure I felt comfy, welcome and have become my other family here. They’ve taught me a lot, and I’m still learning from them.

– Elaf

What are some of the things they’ve taught you? About Canadian culture, how to connect with people, and attitude. They’ve also encouraged me to take my time and give myself space, especially when practising my English.

Have you used any services at the college? I’m very involved with the Segal International Centre. Not only have they helped me with the transition but I’m now an International Ambassador, helping others with theirs. I’ve also volunteered with the team at events like Open House and Orientation. I’ve used many other college services, like GeorgianConnects.

The Housing team helped me find a Homestay for the summer. I’ll be living with a Canadian family, interacting with them to improve my English and to become more part of the community.

How would you describe Canada so far? The people are very friendly. I arrived on Aug. 11. After a warm welcome at the airport, I was left for a bit on my own to settle into residence. But I was so excited I started walking around and exploring the community! I soon felt like I belonged. Two weeks later, I found myself part of a welcoming committee for other new international students. I’ve made lots of friends.

What drew you to the biotechnology field? In Grade 10, I wrote a research paper on the CDK7 gene in humans and explored the link between it and cancers. It was fascinating and I became very interested in the topic. I’ll likely pursue a bachelor’s degree and then plan to work someday in the pharmaceutical industry.

Any memorable moments since you arrived? So many! I’ve noticed Canadians do holidays in a big way – everything from Christmas and Easter to Halloween and Valentine’s. I went to Halloween Haunt at Canada’s Wonderland in the fall and that was pretty fun.

One thing I’m proud of was my involvement in this year’s #ITSTARTS campaign. #ITSTARTS is an annual Simcoe County-wide public awareness campaign designed to foster a sense of belonging while reducing discrimination and racism in the community. Georgian was a 2023 community champion and we organized lots of events across our campuses as part of Come Together Week.

I helped lead initiatives to increase awareness about the holy month of Ramadan. This included recommendations for employees about how to support each other and students who were fasting and led to larger conversations about diverse cultural needs and accommodations.

What do you like to do for fun? I love playing with my Rubik’s Cube, watching movies, listening to music, walking and exploring new areas in the community. I’m adventurous, and passionate about learning new things, my family and human psychology too. I’d also call myself courageous, kind and someone who likes to take care of others.

Anything else you wish to share?

For anyone who might be facing struggles in their life, I’d say be kind, don’t give up, don’t listen to the people who hurt you, and keep trying – even if it takes a while to get to where you want to be.

– Elaf

Student Refugee Program

The program is the only one of its kind to combine resettlement with opportunities for higher education, supporting more than 150 refugee students per year through active partnerships with over 100 Canadian university, college and CEGEP campuses.

Students are provided with tuition and living expenses for one year, after which time they’re supported in finding employment, financial aid and/or scholarships to cover the cost of the remainder of their studies.

As an official Sponsorship Agreement Holder in Canada, WUSC has a longstanding agreement with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. This agreement enables the program to bring refugee students to study in Canada as permanent residents.

Crucial to the program’s success is its unique youth-to-youth sponsorship model, which empowers students in Canada to play an active role in the sponsorship of refugee students. Campus-based Local Committees raise funds and awareness for the program in their community. They also play a critical role in offering day-to-day social and academic support to newly arrived students.

Elaf is an inspiration to all of us at Georgian. We’re super proud of how quickly she’s adapted, become involved in the community, and acquired the self-reliance skills she needs to succeed. This is a life-changing opportunity for her and a chance for us, as Canada’s only Ashoka U designated changemaker college, to foster global citizenship while raising awareness and doing our part to foster a more just and inclusive world.”

– Catherine Vellinga, Professor, Liberal Arts

Georgian plans to welcome another refugee student in the fall. Elaf will help with the resettlement process and be a valuable mentor as they transition to the college and their new life in Canada.

This post was originally shared in April and updated in June 2023

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