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Decide to dream – the power of community and the Student Refugee Program

*This piece was written by guest blogger, Acha Divine Patandjila, who moved to Canada through the Student Refugee Program in December 2020. This past June she graduated from Humber College and was awarded the prestigious Board of Governors Award for her achievements. In this blog, she shares her inspiring journey with the Student Refugee Program and reflects on the power of community and shares some words of advice for the students arriving across Canada this fall. 

Decide to dream – the power of community and the Student Refugee Program

My favourite thing about Kampala is the ‘kasana’ (which means sun in Ugandan slang). I love the way it glistens on my skin reflecting beauty and royalty. 

When my family and I left the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) due to war and internal conflict, Kampala opened its arms just wide enough for us to seek refuge. This is when we were first given the title ‘refugee’ along with its status, a title so many tend to disregard but, for me, that was never a limitation. For a tall girl I had dreams bigger than myself and I had to achieve them by all means.

After high school, I applied for WUSC’s Student Refugee Program through Windle International Uganda; this was my first step in chasing my dreams. Kampala was great, a land that sheltered many, but I was thirsty for more education. Amid constant hopelessness, the program was just the glimpse of light I needed at that time. With several hundreds of candidates, only 20-25 youth are selected each year. This was only the second cohort coming from Uganda. 

To make it to the end was a battle. Fortunately for me, I am a warrior who has combated against all odds of leaving my country and I was successful. I was selected! My strength from this experience provides me with motivation and optimism. Everytime I wake up and decide to dream, it is almost the only thing I know how to do. 

December 17th, 2020 was surreal. I hugged my family goodbye, and left my younger sister drenched in tears. Her only sister was going for God knows what and where.  

Is it worth it? The sound of my suitcase wheels got louder, the beat of my heart too, but my mind was out of this place, “This is it; this is where it all begins, on this plane,” I thought to myself and slept off the rest of the journey. 

Toronto’s winter was colder than any wet season I had ever known of. The breeze stung my face like a million little needles, until Shaun, a member of my WUSC Local Committee, offered me a warm smile and fist pump to welcome me while observing COVID-19 protocols. Over a little chit-chat, he handed me a long-knitted scarf and gloves and took me to the hotel where I was to quarantine for the next three weeks. Tuba, another Local Committee member with her eyes squinched just tightly enough for me to see the smile behind her mask, stood there with a welcome banner saying, “Humber College welcomes you” and two carts full of snacks. This my friend, is Toronto!

By January of 2021, Ontario was still under several COVID-19 measures which were still applied in public spaces such as school residences where there was limited contact; the famous two metres apart rule was mandatory and most open spaces were closed including classrooms. All classes were online, and at the time, that was the closest mode of communication we had. I knew not a single soul in the city, and I was desperate for acquaintanceship; the loneliness was terrifying. But, I am grateful for my Local Committee who, despite all measures, fought barriers to make sure I felt safe and less isolated through constant online hangouts and long-distance drops.  

I had no idea what I was doing in school, I will not even pretend I did. Never in my life did I think I would do a Web Design course, yet there I was typing codes on my computer and bringing life to them. I hated it so much; it was hard. I thought media communications involved me being either in front or behind a camera, but little did I know that there was more. 

When I was younger, I would play pretend and imagine I was the main actress in a movie with a co-star called Jack, whatever happened to Jack! Going on to my teenage years I was rather shy and reserved, yet still aced my drama and literature classes. But coming from a typical African family you’re either a doctor, lawyer or engineer and for some funny reason, I thought I was the doctor in my family only until I failed all sciences in my O’level exams. That is why, when picking a course for college, I was beyond confused. I will stress this as much as I can though. My Local Committee, as well as the school supported me through counselling and career guidance, and that is how I ended up in Media Communications at Humber College. Despite the first semesters being online, the level of commitment from the professors and colleagues was divine, it felt suspiciously too good. I always feared there was something I had to do in return, but no, it was just a group of dedicated individuals looking to support this girl in a very foreign land.

When you leave your first home it feels as though all hope has died; all that you ever knew is no longer and what lies ahead is undivulged. When you get to the next stop all you do is continue living in hope that there is more to your life than what has met the eye, and in that hope, there is the manifestation; allow me to be your living example. 

On June 14, 2022, I graduated from Humber College and was bestowed the Board of Governors Award, an award granted to a graduating student who has achieved their academic goals while also attending to significant college, community, or personal commitments. When I received that award, I did not see in myself all that was stated. What I did see, however, was a girl with nothing but her dreams. Dreams made possible by a community of supporters. WUSC, who believed in my vision and took action. Windle International Uganda, who stood in as an intermediary between us, the students and WUSC. Humber College, for being not only my educational institution but my family, and Canada for being a host to thousands of people who left their countries under similar circumstances. 

To get to where I was my family back home cheered me on, constantly praying for me and encouraging me. My friends back home stayed in touch and in action, and my Toronto church community stood with me during all seasons for moral and spiritual support. My friends in residence made the nights in *res* jovial and youthful. The cafeteria lady remembered my birthday and always shared a heartfelt laugh every time she saw me. I would be a fool not to talk about my professors and other members of staff (especially my boss); they have continued to push me to where I am headed the best way they can. The WUSC family in Toronto; the students that have benefited from the Student Refugee Program, we became one big family that stands there for each other. 

On June 14, 2022, when I stood on stage at my graduation and received that award, I thought to myself it’s all because of the Ubuntu philosophy, a song I sing whenever I can “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which can be directly translated to “I am because we are.” Community is one of the greatest gifts given to humanity as the famous African proverb goes, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” My community continuously encouraged me through difficult times, proactively helped me find solutions when needed, and celebrated with me during my successes. Even amidst a pandemic, I was never alone. 

As I look back on the past year and a half, I have grown immeasurably academically as I have socially. Beyond aspirations I have learnt that it takes each individual to reach a common goal, we all have a role to play for the world to move forward.

To all the young learners arriving in this fall’s cohort of the Student Refugee Program, I would like to welcome you to this new venture, may it be a ray of light leading you to your greatest aspirations. Great things lay ahead, that is an assurance! Welcome to the WUSC family and community. 

  • Acha Patandjila, Author and Poet   

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