From refugee camps to McGill campus

Student-run, student-supported WUSC McGill has been sponsoring refugee scholars since 1986

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ most recent report, the number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution has now surpassed 100 million for the first time on record. Of that number, over 26 million are refugees – people who have crossed international borders to find safety -- another tragic milestone.

Millions of lives derailed, countless dreams and aspirations shattered. But not all hope is lost.

On May 30, Manyang Lual Jok crossed the stage on McGill’s lower campus to collect his BA in Computer Science and Economics during Spring Convocation, just five years removed from the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where he had spent more than half his life. A native of South Sudan, Jok fled his war-torn homeland when he was nine years old.

Jok is the most recent success story of the WUSC McGill Student Refugee Program. Since its establishment in 1986, WUSC McGill – a branch of World University Services Canada (WUSC) – has sponsored over 60 student refugees to resettle in Canada and pursue their education at McGill. Currently, 15 WUSC scholars are pursuing their studies at McGill. WUSC McGill is in full preparation to welcome eight new scholars this fall, including, for the first time, two Afghan scholars. This is WUSC McGill’s largest cohort to date.

Run by students, funded by students

It is a program unlike most others.

WUSC McGill is a student-run club of the Students’ Society of McGill University that provides a year of full financial sponsorship, integration assistance, and a community of support. The program is funded through a $4 levy collected from all McGill students every semester based on student referendum, which is administered by the Scholarships & Student Aid Office.

“The SRP is unique because this peer-to-peer resettlement is not the regular pathway that the government uses to resettle refugees,” says Alice Ishimwe, WUSC McGill’s Student Refugee Program Coordinator. “I’ve been invited to speak in other countries and they don’t have programs like this where youth are doing what organizations and governments usually do.”

Five pillars of the program

World University Service of Canada is a non-profit organization that fosters youth-centered solutions for improved education, economic, and empowerment opportunities to overcome inequality and exclusion in countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas.

WUSC Student Refugee Program Local Committees operate on five pillars: academic integration; social integration; health and well-being; financial support; and self-reliance. WUSC works with over 100 Canadian universities, colleges, and CEGEPs to bring scholars to Canada.

Full financial and social support

Alice Ishimwe, WUSC McGill’s Student Refugee Program Coordinator, and Alexis Janssen, one of the co-chairs of WUSC McGill

Alice Ishimwe, WUSC McGill’s Student Refugee Program Coordinator, and Alexis Janssen, one of the co-chairs of WUSC McGill

“WUSC scholars are resettled as single adults and leave all family behind, in the asylum country, to begin a new life in Canada,” says Ishimwe, who just earned her Bachelor of Social Work from McGill and will start her Masters of Social Work in the fall. “The financial support includes everything from housing (they usually stay in Residence), tuition, books, laptops, phones, winter clothing – even McGill swag.”

But the support goes well beyond finances. WUSC McGill is literally there the moment the new scholars set foot in Montreal. “We meet each new arrival at the airport, everyone holding welcome signs and wearing our blue WUSC t-shirts,” says Ishimwe. “It is definitely the most exciting time for all of us.”

“Usually, the scholars know very little about McGill University or the members of the Local Committee set to welcome them,” she says. “In their first days, we take them to their residence rooms and mobilize LC members to show them everything,” she says. “Campus tours, meet their professors and academic advisors – all before classes start.”

A warm welcome

When Jok, the recent graduate, stepped off the plane at Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport in 2017, he was a 22-year-old in a new country without a single friend. “It was scary,” he admits.

But that would quickly change.

The WUSC McGill students who met him at the airport were the “very first people I met in Canada and they were also some of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” says Jok.

During his undergrad years, Jok himself became very involved with the McGill WUSC committee. When new students would arrive at the airport, he was one of the people there to greet them and make them feel at home.

“It’s such a humbling experience [meeting new-comers at the airport],” he says. “It brings me back to my first day in Canada – which is one of those memories that I will always hold dear.”

Manyang Lual Jok leaves Kakuma Refugee Camp

Then and now: Manyang Lual Jok leaves Kakuma Refugee Camp in 2017 with a manila envelope “holding everything I owned” (left); and with his BA degree in 2022.

A taste of home

Alone in a new country and apart from their friends and family many new arrivals are overwhelmed. To ease the transition, WUSC McGill organizes social activities (skating, bowling, picnics) and ensures each scholar has a phone or laptop to be able to communicate with people back home.

“It’s a huge culture shock – even when it comes to food” says Ishimwe. “When possible, we arrange to prepare traditional meals from their home countries – be it Kenya, Malawi, Burundi, Lebanon, Syrians, South Sudan, or Somalia. It is all part of the acclimatization.”

“We feel like this is the best model for us to integrate peers because it’s not someone in an office telling them what to do,” she says. “It’s your colleague who’s going to classes with you, eating at the cafeteria with you, shopping with you for a winter jacket. There’s no big power imbalance.”

Quick learners

Ishimwe is quick to point out that, while simple things that we take for granted – like paying a phone bill – can be confusing for new scholars at first, it doesn’t take long before they start to blossom.

“Don’t forget, they have gone through a very competitive selection process to part of the WUSC program. These are very skilled students who were selected from the top schools of their camps,” she says. “They are experts in navigating McGill and Montreal in just a few months.

“Oftentimes, previous scholars take on leadership roles in the Local Committee to support future cohorts through the experience they lived through themselves”

Rethinking the way we view refugees

Ishimwe says that, while WUSC undoubtedly provides refuge through resettlement, we sometimes lose sight of the reciprocal benefits. She notes that WUSC “graduates” are spread around the world: working for tech companies in the US; occupying great roles in the Canadian government; doing international work in Europe

“We should think of WUSC as a way to bring talented community members here,” she says. “These scholars are brilliant and they add to the diversity of McGill and Canada with the richness of their intellect and of their cultures. We’re all better for it.”

Learn more about WUSC McGill and how you can get involved.

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