Aden Ahmed’s face has no trace of stubble, his dark curls have been trimmed back to his scalp, his blue-gold pinstripe button-up and grey slacks look as if they were pressed this morning, and under his wide eyes fine traces of exhaustion have been etched by the familiar transition between summer and school. In other words, if Ahmed were put into a lineup with his fellow accounting classmates, you’d have a hard time picking him out. However, those four years of attending class, part-time jobs, grocery lists, doctor’s appointments, and living as a typical student are not years he takes for granted.
Five years ago, things were different for Ahmed. Instead of spending his days attending class and listening to lectures, he was giving them. Ahmed taught eighth grade math in a secondary school he helped found in the Dadaab, Kenya refugee camp he spent most of his life in after his family left Somalia when he was very young. With shelter and water being scarce in the camp, the school had limited resources. Ahmed can recall him and other students gathering around a kerosene lamp to study.
“Students would have other things to worry about,” remembers Ahmed, “their parents died, or they didn’t have anything to eat for lunch, things like that. Many came from different backgrounds, so it was very challenging to teach them and talk to them, counsel them. This person has a problem, this person has a problem… everybody in the world has something [to worry about,] but dealing with students who were called last night and told ‘hey, your dad was shot,’ or teaching someone who just left home with their siblings and doesn’t have anything to eat was challenging. We didn’t have many resources, but everyone that was in the school was trying their best.”
Ahmed’s life changed when he was sponsored by World University Service of Canada (WUSC). While there are well regarded universities in Kenya, being a refugee presented a unique obstacle to acceptance for Ahmed.
“The schools [in the refugee camp] are overcrowded, you don’t get all the resources you want to study, there are no lights, you use kerosene lamp to study,” says Ahmed, “and then you have to compete with the other students in the country who go to national schools that are really very expensive with good teachers and all that. You do the same exam—and Kenyan grade 12 exams are one of the hardest I’ve ever had. So it is very hard to make it in Kenya. If you can make it in Kenya, you won’t be having any trouble making it in other places, because the refugee life is always always hard. Some places in Kenya are great, but the refugee life makes it difficult.”
WUSC’s origins date back to the 1920s. The group was founded after the First World War, as International Student Service (ISS). The goal of the group was to provide aid and show solidarity with post-secondary students in post-war Europe. In the 1930s, ISS set its sights on Jewish and other refugees fleeing Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. ISS first came to Canada in 1939, when several students and faculty founded a chapter at the University of Toronto. In 1950, ISS changed its name to WUSC, and switched its focus towards the Middle East and Asia. Although it is its most well known program, the Student Refugee Program was not created until 1978, but has since spread across Canada, arriving at VIU in 2009, a year after our WUSC was formed.
While other university WUSC groups operate differently, VIU’s sponsors two students each year. The students’ tuitions and living expenses for the first year are paid for by WUSC, and afterwards the students are expected to pay their own way through a combination of income from part-time employment, student loans, and scholarships. Beyond providing financial aid for these students, WUSC also supports them morally.
Since arriving at VIU, Ahmed has become the co-chair of VIU WUSC, and personally works to acclimatize new refugee students. He says these students commonly experience culture shock after arriving in Canada, and once they have arrived, the group focuses on helping them settle, so that they can put their efforts towards their studies.
“The first month will be a honeymoon period, like they will not be feeling the culture shock,” says Ahmed, “but come November, that’s when it’s up, and then suddenly it goes down. That’s when they’ll be having the culture shock and all those things, so that’s when we have to morally support them, that’s when we have to take them for activities, that’s when we have to be all the time with them.”
WUSC derives its income from various fundraisers, including the annual Harambee gala dinner event, and from a student levee of 19 cents per month, which the group is hoping to increase to 38 cents per month this year. As Ahmed puts it, “only paying three dollars to change the life of someone is not an easy thing.”
“Currently, the whole world is in crisis, and WUSC believes we can change the world through education,” says Ahmed. “If we educate people, they can change the world. WUSC has sponsored more than 1000 students through Canada, so very great people have been sponsored, went back, and changed their lives. Educating one person in a family or a community is like educating the whole family. When we sponsor one student, the life of that whole family will change, because that student gets good education, they get good jobs, they help the family, and they keep helping the community…
Sponsoring one student to come to Canada through the WUSC program through resettlement and education combined, I think its even better than sponsoring a whole family for resettlement, and then just telling them to come here and do what they want. When I came here I had the mentality that ‘okay, everybody’s counting on you—your family’s counting on you, the community’s counting on you, the community that sponsored you is counting on you. So you work hard, don’t drop school, and through that you show that high expectation. After all, these people did all the hard work they did because they paid to sponsor me. They can see that I paid the price, I worked hard, I got my degree, I’m serving the community, and I became a very important person.”
Every year, WUSC receives eight applications, and chooses which students to sponsor based on several criteria, such as the applicants program, their grades, and how well they will be able to assimilate once they are here. Despite utilizing a system, Ahmed says that narrowing their choice down to just two can be harrowing.
“The life of refugees is complicated,” says Ahmed, “when you read the background of somebody, it can make you really feel like crying. When you’re doing judgemental things, like selecting a student, we avoid being taken by emotions because everybody’s story is like—the kind of life they live and all that… It reminds me—it might not remind the other people— of life in the refugee camp.”
Despite graduating in April, Ahmed says that he is far from through with WUSC.
“Theoretically this will be my last year with WUSC, but this is not my last year with WUSC,” says Ahmed. “I’ll be helping WUSC and working with WUSC, but not in the way I do now… It’s a very interesting program to be in—way different than any other program I’ve seen at the university—because it is physically helping people. That’s how I explain it to people. University students are always busy, and if you become an executive in the WUSC program it is demanding, but supporting WUSC is my goal for the rest of my life.”