World University Service of Canada (WUSC) is an organization that envisions an equitable and sustainable future in which the youth, especially young women and refugees, are empowered to secure a good quality of life for themselves, their families, and their communities. I am among the university students in Canada involved in supporting WUSC’s unique Student Refugee Program (SRP) that sponsors refugees to reside in Canada as permanent residents. WUSC actively partners with over 95 Canadian campuses and supports over 130 refugees per year. On October 23rd of 2019, WUSC welcomed their 2000th sponsored refugee to Canada through the program!
I have been a member of the WUSC local committee at Trinity College, University of Toronto for two years and counting. Since the SRP first began at Trinity College in 1984, our chapter has sponsored one refugee student (who we refer to as SRP students) to study at Trinity every year. What stands out about the SRP is its “youth-to-youth” sponsorship model, which allows Canadian students to play an active and fundamental role in the sponsorship process. The financial viability of the program at Trinity depends wholly on funds obtained from our student levy: the amounts that are provided to the SRP student for living expenses come entirely from funds obtained from our students. That is, students at Trinity are directly supporting a classmate’s education and allowing this classmate to build a future for him/herself. As Events Coordinator during my first two years on the committee, I organized educational events to promote refugee advocacy and empowerment and arranged committee socials with SRP students (board game cafes have been our go-tos!). Our committee as a whole strives to offer day-to-day support to SRP students not only in regards to academics and financial literacy but also social acclimation.
What do I find meaningful about my involvement in WUSC? In short, it has been inspiring and has pushed me to become painfully aware of my privileges (apologies for the cliché). My daily concerns revolve around academic performance – and while this is valid, I realized through WUSC that my ability to concentrate solely on these concerns stems from the security that I have been afforded. To me, it would be an injustice to deeply envelop myself in my own academic bubble at university. I hope to take advantage of my security by applying myself to work that involves creating opportunities for those who need these the most. One simply cannot feel at ease with how societies and global systems function today: comfort, or a lack of uneasiness, is a sign of wilful ignorance. By acknowledging how the stability enjoyed by privileged individuals is largely founded on the exploitation of the vulnerable (not only those in the immediate community but also in other countries), you feel an inescapable urge to act on that understanding. Consciously striving to overcome self-preoccupation, and being a part of something bigger than yourself, allows you to live in a much more meaningful way. I am very aware of the long journey that I have ahead of me in working at self-improvement in this regard.
An SRP student once shared his experiences of applying to WUSC’s sponsorship program. To say that the process is competitive is an understatement – refugee students prepare rigorously for rounds of tests and interviews. The possibility of emigrating, he explained, is often their only motivation for persevering through school. I remember him recounting the time when he discovered that he was chosen: family members screaming for joy and the people around him celebrating for days. He expressed deep sympathy for his peers who were just as qualified. It is regrettable how few spaces are available for sponsorships to Canadian universities considering the sheer number of individuals in need of the opportunity. Our committee at Trinity College hopes to eventually sponsor two students each year, though this would involve securing enough funds to support another person’s livelihood. We hope to see additional partnerships across Canada or even see nonprofits in other countries establish similar programs with the support of universities and governments.
Above all, there is a need for a shift in the refugee narrative. My request to those reading this article is the following: regard refugees as individuals, each with their own stories and aspirations, rather than a population in need of charity. Reconsider how you frame those on the “receiving end” of volunteer work – it should not be a one-way street in which one party is a selfless giver and the other a helpless recipient; rather, nonprofit work is a symbiotic collaboration between individuals that results in empowerment and transformative change.
Written by: Katherine Ye
Edited by: Chloe Lee