According to UN refugee agency UNHCR, there are currently 68.5 million people from around the world who have been forced from home, nearly 25.4 million refugees among them. To make matters worse, only one per cent of refugees worldwide have access to higher education.
Michelle Manks, senior manager, Durable Solutions for Refugees, World University Service of Canada, finds these statistics alarming but also notes that an innovative Canadian model is making a difference: the Student Refugee Program provides young refugees with opportunities to continue their education on Canadian campuses.
“Our program, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2018, is the only one in the world that combines refugee resettlement – and a durable solution for refugees – with higher education opportunities,” she says. “We work with over 95 campuses across Canada, representing almost every university and a growing number of colleges and cégeps.”
The youth-to-youth sponsorship program is powered by Canadian students, who secure the funding to support the refugee students coming to their campuses and help with their integration, she says. “We collectively sponsor about 130 students each year.”
While the program has historically welcomed students from 39 different countries of origin, its priorities change along with global displacement patterns, says Ms. Manks. “Currently, our students may be from Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan, Iraq, Palestine and Syria.”
The students are recruited from six countries of asylum: Lebanon and Jordan in the Middle East, and Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Malawi in sub-Saharan Africa, where many of them have lived most or all their lives as well as attended school. Knowing that there is a pathway to higher education can act as an incentive for young refugees to pursue an education, she says. “It creates a pull factor through lower levels of education for children in the camps or environment from which they come. It gives them something to work towards.”
In Canada, the impact of the program is felt by the refugee students and the Canadian youth supporting them. “The idea is to provide spaces for refugees, help them navigate their new academic and social environment and support their integration,” says Ms. Manks. “For Canadian students, it is a chance to develop cross-cultural skills and engage with global issues from home.”
The student groups supporting the Student Refugee Program are part of a national network dedicated to learning about and raising awareness of refugee issues, and creating welcoming campuses. “Our student groups are very active and creative,” says Ms. Manks. “They organize conferences, community fundraisers, fashion shows, thank you campaigns and more.”
The idea is to inspire Canadians to take action on the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN’s blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. The Student Refugee Program allows Canadians – and especially higher education institutions – to help improve outcomes for refugees, suggests Ms. Manks.
“Canada is the only country that has such an engagement from post-secondary institutions. Our program has become a global model for connecting refugees to higher education, and it is helping to inform the strategy of the UN on education pathways,” she says. “We also work with higher education communities around the world on how they can adapt the Canadian model for their own context and create welcoming communities for refugees.”
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