Every year, young students from WUSC Local Committees at post-secondary institutions across Canada gather in Ottawa-Gatineau to learn how they can better support refugee integration, raise awareness on issues of forced migration, and run successful Local Committees.
This year, we were thrilled to have our biggest turnout yet with almost 100 student participants representing institutions from coast to coast to coast. We were particularly excited to have four of these students join us from Italy and the UK!
These international students were selected as part of a project to connect young leaders working on refugee resettlement and integration. The Italian students participated with the support of the Embassy of Canada to Italy, which has been working alongside WUSC to share our unique peer-to-peer sponsorship model with other countries – including Italy, Spain, Malta, and France.
The young international visitors spent their time in Ottawa-Gatineau learning about the structure of Canada’s unique resettlement and post-secondary education program, and the role Canadian students play in changing the public narrative on refugees and migrants. Despite not having the same model of private sponsorship on which they can build education pathways to resettlement, like the SRP, students around the world are still showing great leadership in providing support to their refugee and newcomer peers on campus. During the Leadership Meeting, WUSC shared its youth-to-youth, campus-based integration model with the international representatives to build their capacity in creating more welcoming communities for refugees back home. They hope to bring what they learned back to their countries to foster greater understanding and support for refugees on their campuses.
Supporting the Integration of Refugee Students: The Italian Mentorship Program
Nisrine Balsano, Beatrice Tirinelli, and Silvia Cristiani, from the Universities of Palermo, Roma Tre, and Milano-Bicocca respectively, first heard about WUSC and the SRP during a workshop on Canada’s model of youth-to-youth integration in Rome. Balsano described how the workshop prompted her and her colleagues to consider what struggles asylum seekers and refugees may face. “They don’t know the language, because everything is in Italian,” she said. “So that is the first barrier. Then we thought about the social barrier, because they do not have friends or family. And then of course we thought about the academic barriers like administration and studying because in Italy it is hard to keep up with all the exams. From there we thought of ways we could help.” Thus formed the Italian Mentorship Program, an initiative where Italian youth work with refugee youth to address those needs and help them adapt to Italian school systems.
Balsano, Tirinelli and Cristiani presented their efforts to Canadian WUSC leaders at the meeting. They were well-received by leadership attendees, who were excited by the work of their Italian counterparts. “It’s great to hear that there are people in Italy and in the UK that are working to build the same thing that we are doing here. It’s very different than what we hear from the TV news,” said Lovette Mado, a Local Committee member from Laurentian University.
Tirinelli described the opportunity to travel to Canada and engage with other passionate students as an invaluable experience. “What excited me most the past few days was to see that all over the world, many young people are interested in integration. Sometimes we think that society is not for integration, but by participating in this kind of meeting, it gives me hope for the future.”
Cristiani added that the various exercises and discussions were important to critically engage with issues. “People — and refugees — are not just a number. We can always learn something from one another.”
“When I started this project, I just really wanted to help,” finished Balsano. “It was as simple as that. When you see the work that WUSC and the Italian Mentorship Program are doing… it shows that a simple idea between people can lead to something greater. And that’s what inspires me.”
Refugee Advocacy in the UK: Student Action for Refugees (STAR)
Shara Marie-France Temahagali was the representative for Student Action for Refugees (STAR), a UK-based, student-led organization that works to engage the public on issues of forced migration through volunteering, fundraising, campaigning, and educating. Temahagali said it was inspiring to connect with other students who share her passion. “I’m glad that WUSC and STAR can mutually assist and promote one another,” she said. “I think the UK has a lot to learn from Canada. The UK currently has a very negative overview of refugees,” she continued. “STAR wants to change that.”
Temahagali also highlighted that she was particularly intrigued by how Local Committees finance their sponsorships. She was surprised to learn that more than one million students across Canada contribute annually to the SRP. The majority of these contributions are made through levies, where a small portion of student fees — ranging from approximately $1 to $20 nationwide — go towards helping Local Committees support SRP students.
“I think it would be a lot easier for STAR to engage the student body via a levy rather than asking the university to give students free education,” said Temahagali. “That’s something I’m definitely going to bring back and hopefully implement to grow STAR’s Equal Access to education campaign.”
The weekend left the student leaders feeling inspired and connected to one another. We are excited to see how they will be implementing the skills they learned into their respective initiatives to continue to build more welcoming and inclusive communities for refugees.