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 new sponsored students at the airport in the next few weeks. Hamdi Aweys, 24, her head covered in a beautiful 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 greeted to a whole new world by a similar group of students.
Maalim and Aweys were both born in the midst of the Somali Civil War, which caused the deaths of over 350 thousand Somalis due to starvation, disease, and war violence. An ongoing conflict sparked by the fall of Somali President Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, the Somali Civil 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 Daadab refugee camp in Kenya. In a different story, Aweys’ father was a victim of war three months before she was born. When she was five years old, her mother sought refuge and brought the family to the same refugee 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 thousand 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. Students may apply to multiple schools, but if they are not accepted by any, the WUSC will place them at one. Both Maalim and Aweys were accepted by VIU. Maalim arrived in Nanaimo in 2011 and 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.
The WUSC sponsored students program is competitive; approximately one thousand students across 60 schools in each camp apply every year, of which only 10 to 20 students have grades that qualify. In total, between 50 to 60 students from Kenya and another 50 from the Middle East and Asia are accepted. Students who do not qualify their first time may apply twice more in proceeding years. Aweys had friends who did not make the cut.
“I felt very bad for my friends who did a good job but didn’t qualify,” she says. “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.”
“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+.” In addition to academic testing, students do community service to indicate that they are willing to contribute to their new country as well. WUSC also ensures that each student is prepared to move and attend university, but also considers how vulnerable they are so they can help the students who are the most deserving, Maalim says.
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 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.”
For Maalim, the transition has included adapting to the western pace of life.
“We are more individualistic here,” Maalim says. “We need to do our own stuff. But at the refugee camps, they have nothing to do—they don’t have a dream, so they are always socializing, and it’s a communal life where everyone is always coming together. Back home, if I didn’t give time to my friends, they would think I was no longer interested in their friendship.”
WUSC members and other people in the community commit to supporting the sponsored students as they make this transition. Each student lives in student housing for at least their first year, and 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.”
“I didn’t like the tiny rooms [in residence],” Maalim laughs, “but you have that interaction with students from different cultures. It’s so beautiful to make friends with so many different backgrounds.”
Despite some hard times, some of the culture shock has been easy 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,” he laughs.
Other differences are more profound; the refugee camp they lived in was predominantly Muslim, and the role of faith was much more prominent. For example, Aweys’ religious practices 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,” she says.
Maalim explains that casual intimacy in public was a new concept he found difficult to adapt to.
“Here, when you make a friend, your friend will just hug you. It’s a friendly hug,” Maalim 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 goes 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.”
Aweys says that some people have been more accepting than others: “Racism exists,” she says. “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 an active member in his first year and eventually the chair of the club. With events, weekly meetings, and sponsored students to support, it’s a big commitment, but one he is proud of.
Now that he is graduating, he will pass on the torch to Aweys and Jessyca Idi, an international student from Brazil, who will function as co-chairs.
“There is no way we can calculate the value of a human life,” Idi says, “and yet statistics make us so indifferent to the individuals, families, and communities that are suffering. It is important to have student involvement because it is not just about funding; it is about raising awareness.”
VIUSU 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 $10k from the VIU Faculty Association, and all donations are matched at 50 cents on the dollar. The initiative will fund and support a third student from Syria, and fund 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.
In the meantime, Aweys is determined to complete her degree so she can pursue another 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 years after VIU to save up money before beginning medical school. Marrying is another priority she thinks about.
“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.”
Of course, like all students, they find time for fun. When he isn’t organizing things for WUSC or studying, Maalim is often at the soccer field—a passion he brought with him from Kenya. Both he and Aweys have discovered a love for bowling since moving to Canada. “We go with WUSC members and have bowling nights, with potluck dinners and such,” he says.
“And I love just hanging out with friends,” Aweys adds.
Aweys and Maalim both look forward to returning 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 complete his business degree so he can start working and 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.”