Offering a refuge for education

With increased financial support, the Student Refugee Program sponsors one student’s education every year

Agot Thon, Nurs ’08, came to Queen’s from a refugee camp in Kenya through the Student Refugee Program.
Agot Thon, Nurs ’08, came to Queen’s from a refugee camp in Kenya through the Student Refugee Program.
Photo: 
Kakuma Refugee Camp, where Agot Thon and Ajang Aguer lived before coming to Queen’s, is the biggest refugee camp in Kenya.
Kakuma Refugee Camp, where Agot Thon and Ajang Aguer lived before coming to Queen’s, is the biggest refugee camp in Kenya.
Credit: 
Graphic by Joshua Chan

In December 2003, Agot Thon boarded a flight from Nairobi Airport to London, and on to Toronto. She flew into Kingston the next morning.

Two years after graduating from high school, Thon left the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya to enroll at Queen’s in the Faculty of Nursing in 2004 through the Student Refugee Program.

Thon left her birthplace, Sudan, in 1986 at the age of five to live in Itang refugee camp in Ethiopia for six years. She moved to Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp in 1993.

The Student Refugee Program (SRP) is part of World University Services of Canada (WUSC), a development agency focusing on education in the developing world.

Since it was established in 1978, the program has sponsored about 900 refugee students from more than 30 countries, such as Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, and Poland to come to Canada as permanent residents and enroll in Canadian post-secondary institutions. There are more than 70 university and college campuses across Canada participating in the program, which brings about 50 students from developing countries to Canadian campuses annually.

Kakuma is Kenya’s biggest refugee camp. This year, WUSC accepted about 40 students from the camp into the Student Refugee Program.

While she was at Kakuma, Thon applied to the program, which brought her to Queen’s.

“I had many friends at camp who went to Canada through the program,” she said.

After she was accepted in 2003, she started a year-long orientation program where she learned basic computer skills, attended English classes and took a TOEFL test.

She said that the registration system at Queen’s was a bit of a challenge at first, due to its heavy reliance on the Internet.

“At camp, we went through training in basic computer packages; Internet had just been introduced,” Thon said. “You have to register online and do everything online [at Queen’s], and you feel lost at the beginning.” Thon said that the cumulative marking system at Queen’s was something different that she had to get used to.

“In high school, we did assignments to not get in trouble, but what counted in the end were the midterms and the finals,” she said. “Here, everything counts. From the start, everything’s a go, go, go.” Familiarizing herself with Kingston surroundings was also a challenge, Thon said.

“When you’re from a war-torn city, everything is destroyed; so basic things are the things you have to get,” she said.

The lack of cultural diversity at Queen’s made it hard for Thon to fit in when she first settled in Kingston.

“Living in res, I was older. When I tried to talk to people, I was sometimes put off by their narrow-mindedness,” she said.

“I think a lot of people have the TV-view of where you come from,” she said. “One girl asked me, ‘Do you live in a hut?’… Another girl asked me, ‘Do you see a lion when you wake up?’ I’ve never seen a lion before!” Thon had a room assigned in Harkness Hall, but had to wait until January to move into the room.

“I had cousins in London, Ontario, so I only spent a few days in Vic Hall,” she said.

Cultural differences surrounding personal space also took some getting used to, Thon said.

“Here personal space is important and violating private space is bad,” she said. “I used to think some people were cold, [but] it’s just a different culture.” Thon said she’s thankful for her opportunity to study in Canada, and obtaining a permanent resident visa through the WUSC program provides a unique advantage.

“It’s a great opportunity for someone who would not have an opportunity to have a post-secondary education,” she said. “Lots of people have done successfully in the program and are doing great things.” After graduating this spring, Thon plans to move to Toronto and expects to work in Canada for awhile.

As Thon nears her graduation, Ajang Aguer, Sci ’11, is just beginning his time at Queen’s. He left his native Sudan in 1993 and lived in Kenya for most of his life. He graduated high school at Kakuma camp in 2005 and applied to the Student Refugee Program in March 2006. He arrived in Kingston in August to start his first year at Queen’s.

Although the education system at Queen’s is similar to his schooling in Kenya, Aguer said, there’s a slight difference in language use.

“The language used in exams is different,” he said. “Also, [when] we’re using constant acceleration in physics class … It used to be 10, here it is 9.81.” Aguer said adjusting to Canada hasn’t been a struggle so far.

“Everybody I met has been friendly to me,” he said.

Susan Anderson, assistant director of the Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC), said the centre provides a liaison with the local immigration office the students are selected.

“We work to make sure that documents are completed and that Queen’s has done all its part, and that all the information is available to the student,” she said.

Before the student arrives in Canada, the QUIC establishes e-mail contact with the him or her, provides links to informative websites and arranges a meeting with the student upon his or her arrival.

“What we hope to do is check in and see how things are going,” Anderson said.

Throughout the year, the QUIC also provides resources to help students adjust culturally and academically. Health, Counselling and Disability Services’ cross-cultural counsellor is one such resource, as is the Centre for Teaching and Learning.

Often, after the initial adjustment period, contact can become sparse, Anderson said, as students get caught up in their studies.

Anderson said she wishes students at Queen’s appreciated the different backgrounds and perspectives that the program can bring.

“It’s an opportunity to understand the world—just take a few minutes, be open to hearing someone else’s life experience.

“It’s a great wasted opportunity on campus.” Thon and Aguer are two of three refugee scholars currently at Queen’s. In the past, Queen’s has accepted one student every two years. Last year Principal Karen Hitchcock adopted a new proposal brought forward by the local WUSC committee that means Queen’s will increase funding for the SRP in order to accept one refugee student per year.

The University also increased individual student funding from about $50,000 to $60,000 over four years.

For the next five years, Queen’s will sponsor one refugee student per year. The program will be re-evaluated after five years.

“I think the key was fitting into Principal Hitchcock’s mandate of the University, specifically diversity,” said Courtney Kirkby, ArtSci ’07, and one of WUSC executive members in 2006-07. “We came with the right proposal at the right time.”

At the time of the proposal, the Queen’s program was mainly funded through student fees.

“We weren’t measuring up to the other schools,” Kirkby said.

Kirkby decided that having more students enrolled at Queen’s through the program would help support the program better.

It can be difficult for WUSC committee members to help refugee students adjust to life at Queen’s because their experiences are so different, Kirkby said. Having more students who are experiencing the same thing would help refugee students overcome what could otherwise be a very isolating experience.

At UBC, the program funds three students per year for four years. At University of Toronto, each college sponsors a refugee scholar for one year.

Though she’s glad to have the Student Refugee Program gain more financial support from the University, Kirkby said she wants more support from the University to establish a truly diverse atmosphere at Queen’s.

“It’s ironic that they were willing to give so much money to fund the SRP, but they’re not giving as much money to anti-racism programs at Queen’s,” she said.

WUSC’s Ottawa headquarters selects students in developing countries and sends applications to Queen’s. The Student Awards Office reviews applications in co-ordination with Admission Services to ensure the student’s academics meet Queen’s admission standards, and the school then provides a list of satisfactory students to WUSC.

Associate University Registrar Teresa Alm said the financial coverage for the students changes every year.

“Essentially, in year one, all of the student’s expenses are met, [including] tuition and living expenses,” Alm said.

Tuition is covered in all four years of the students’ enrolment. The University covers 75 per cent of the student’s living expenses in second year, 50 per cent in third year and 25 per cent in fourth year.

Alm said the total amount of funding provided to each student by the University is a total of $60,000.

After first year, the student can apply for the work-study program, as well as Queen’s general bursaries to offset living expenses. The International Centre provides resources for other jobs in Kingston.

“We want finances not to be a burden for the students,” Alm said. “These students financially have a great deal of commitment shown towards them.” If the student wishes to continue studies at Queen’s after four years, he or she is on his or her own financially.

“But students are eligible for other student assistance, they could continue to get funding,” Alm said.

There are two roughly equal sources of funding for the SRP: Student Assistance Funds set aside in the University’s operating budget and student fees—a $1.95 mandatory fee from the AMS and a $2.85 opt-outable fee from the Society of Graduate and Professional Students.

Queen’s established its Student Refugee Program in 1985 and has sponsored 16 students as of 2006.

Alm said she thinks the recent expansion of the program is beneficial to students.

“These students come from a very challenging and unique background,” she said. “They bring different perspectives to the classroom and they add diversity because of their experiences.”

—With files from Lisa Jemison

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