Fighting for the future: voices of student refugees

Honorine John thought she was dreaming when she arrived at Halifax International Airport last autumn. She was greeted by a small group of students from Mount Saint Vincent University who were part of campus based committee World University Service Canada, better known as WUSC.
“All people were happy, smiling at me,” she says. “They are receiving me with respect.” For newcomers to Canada the type of welcome they receive leaves a lasting impression, especially those escaping conflict or persecution.
For the last 14 years John lived in a refugee camp in Malawi. It had become home. Her family had fled to Malawi from Rwanda when she was around four years old. One day, a group of men who used to employ her father came to their house accusing him of betraying them. When the men didn’t find her father, they took John, tying her to a car and dragging her along the ground. They left her on the side of the road where passersby found her and took her to a hospital in Butare.
The attack left scars on her face and a determination to to succeed in life. She became a role model in the camp after completing a rigorous application process to come to Canada though the Student Refugee Program of WUSC.
WUSC is a Canadian non-profit organization that sponsors disadvantaged youth from around the world to pursue higher education. Each year, WUSC committees sponsor a refugee student, to study in Canada. In Halifax, there are chapters of WUSC at the Mount, Dalhousie University, and Saint Mary’s University. The MSVU chapter of WUSC formed in 2006.
Liliane Karenzi also came to Halifax through the WUSC Student Refugee Program at the Mount. She arrived in 2012 and it was her first time on a plane. “I cried” she recalls. “My ears where popping and I wondered is this normal?” She too recalls a positive welcome at the airport. Despite a two-hour delay, WUSC committee members waited to greet her. “They had my name tag and were saying ‘Welcome to Canada.’ It was so emotional for me.” From the airport, Karenzi recounts being taken to her campus dorm room where her bed was made and toiletries and snacks were arranged on the table.
Tiffany Richards and Manila Tanafranca co-chairs of WUSC at MSVU, joined the committee in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Though they were not around when Karenzi arrived, they emphasize the importance of a warm reception.
“We try to get as many students as possible to go [to the airport],” says Richards. “It’s important to the committee that the first weekend they feel really welcome and supported.” This initial support includes setting up the dorm room, getting winter clothing, and helping the students get textbooks.
While a warm welcome makes a lasting impression, continued support is just as important for refugees, especially those who arrive alone. “My sponsoring group has done so much for me and they keep supporting me,” says Karenzi. “If they haven’t seen me in a month they will say, what happened to you?”
For John, the adjustment has been more difficult. Making friends has been a slow and she is still learning the sometimes puzzling norms of Canadian interaction. “If they did something good, I should just say thank you,” she says. “If you are going to a restaurant, everyone is paying for his own meal. If they smile at me, I should also smile back at them [and] just say “hi,” don’t be busy talking to somebody.” She has noticed that smiles aren’t always an invitation to reach out.
The first few weeks can be overwhelming for a sponsored student, explains Richards who is originally from Truro and lived in Toronto for seven years. “One thing I’m learning is that even if they’re coming from the same place, everyone is different,” she says. “Some people want to be involved, are more extroverted; whereas others just want to do their own thing and settle in at their own time.”
About two years ago, their campus chapter of WUSC introduced the SRP Coordinator position whose role is to check in with sponsored students at regular intervals. “This person is to be a safe space for students to …express their concerns” Tanafranca explains. “It really seems to help the students, particularly in the first few weeks and months.”
Tanafranca, who is from Calgary, joined WUSC because of the personal connection. “It wasn’t just fundraising for something we were removed from,” she says. “We get to see how our work impacted someone and see that person face to face.”
Karenzi can relate to the Syrian refugees arriving in Canada. “Losing your home is not an easy thing,” she says. Her family also fled Rwanda in 1994 during the genocide. They spent two years in Tanzania before moving on to Kenya. Liliane learned about WUSC and the Student Refugee Program while in high school in Nairobi.
“Canadians have a big heart for taking in all those people,” she says. She believes that the widespread attention the media has placed on the Syrian refugee crisis might make the public show the same concern for refugees from other countries in similarly dire situations. “I know people who have spent up to 20 years in camps in Kenya,” she says. “It’s their permanent home when they were supposed to have been sent to better places.”
WUSC co-chair Tanafranca says that there has been growing interest in WUSC on campus. “Because students have heard so much about Syrian refugees, they are interested in helping refugees as a whole,” she says. “It’s been important for us to reiterate that this horrible thing has been happening in Syria and to recognize that this same thing is happening to people from all over the world who are on campus.”
Both women are now pursuing studies that will change lives. Karenzi was inspired to study nutrition after a high school teacher explained how food could be used to change people’s lives. John chose to study business since her family used to sell vegetables as a means of income in the camp. “My mother could go a distance of Bedford to downtown to buy cassava and come to sell,” she recalls.
Karenzi and John have advice for anyone who may want to make newcomers feel more welcome. “Show them that you care,” Karenzi says. “Smile. Be warm, try to identify with them. You might not be able to understand me but the fact that you’re taking the time is appreciated.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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