Students at Memorial University of Newfoundland celebrating a successful referendum to implement a student levy of $2.00 to support the Student Refugee Program.

Students in Canada vote “Yes!” to refugee resettlement

How successful referendums across Canadian campuses are creating opportunities for young refugees to access post-secondary education

On 95 college, university and CEGEP campuses in Canada, student-led WUSC Local Committees play a key role in creating opportunities for youth who wish to come to Canada to pursue post-secondary education through the Student Refugee Program. So far, these student groups have supported over 2,000 students from over 39 countries of origin to continue their education in safe and supportive environments in Canada.

One of the ways Local Committees create these opportunities is through the creation of a small student fee–anywhere between $1 – $20 per year–that provides sustainable funding for newcomer students while engaging the whole campus in being part of the solution. More than one million students on Canadian campuses are contributing to the resettlement of refugees through a student levy!

Student levies are a reliable and sustainable source of funding

Student levies are consistent, reliable funding sources that contribute significantly to the cost of private refugee sponsorship. Funds collected from each student’s fees each semester or year are transferred from the Student Union that collects them to the WUSC Local Committee to support the sponsorship of a refugee to their campus.

These levies often remain in place indefinitely, or are renewed or increased every few years through referendum campaigns. This continuity and sustainability enables Local Committees to welcome students on a more regular basis, increase the number of students they welcome, and redirect their efforts from constant fundraising activities to the integration of students.

The other benefit of student levies is that they engage the whole campus in the resettlement of refugee youth, as students actively vote to implement or increase these fees. A levy often costs less than a cup of coffee per student but to students elsewhere, it creates an opportunity for them to build a brighter future.

“It is such an easy win to ask for 2 bucks from each student each semester…and enable somebody to come and study. This makes it easier for the [newcomer] student…instead of them just relying on scholarships. [Through this program], they get support as opposed to them [trying to come] here on their own,” says Jules Morden, Campus Engagement Coordinator of WUSC Local Committee at University of Fraser Valley (UFV).

Successful referendums

Across Canada, there have been many successful referendums to adopt or increase student fees in support of the Student Refugee Program. Out of 95 campuses, over 70 have now adopted a levy-funded model to fund the program.

This year, eight successful referendums took place across the country. Four referendums led to newly created Local Committees at institutions establishing the Student Refugee Program, including Memorial University of Newfoundland, University of the Fraser Valley, Cégep de Jonquière, and Collège d’Alma.

Strategies behind a successful referendum

In November 2019, Memorial University of Newfoundland led a successful referendum with 93% of voting students voting “yes” in favour of the decision to implement a student levy of $2.00 to support the SRP. The first student is currently preparing to arrive in 2021.

Here are the strategies they used in achieving this goal:

Recruiting volunteers and organizing training. The Local Committee engaged volunteers to help promote the referendum. By collaborating with other clubs and using personal contacts, 25 volunteers were involved in the campaign. They planned several activities, and they divided themselves into small teams across campus to reach a maximum number of people across different parts of the university. They made sure they provided the students with direct links to vote instantly. Husam Basemah, a member of the executive team, describes the coordination among volunteers as an “exceptional and instrumental factor to success.”

Engaging students in one-on-one conversations. The Local Committee members realized that they were one of the first clubs on campus to run a referendum campaign, therefore they had to make sure the student body understood what was at stake and why it was important to vote. To do so, they engaged in informal one-on-one conversations, including their own friends! Through these connections, the Local Committee found new champions for the program. They were even able to find a singer who mentioned the Student Refugee Program in their lyrics during an on-campus performance. They worked hard until the very last minute of the campaign, selecting key spots such as the cafeteria, residences (going door-to-door), libraries, etc. to promote the referendum. They reached out to other campus societies and attended their meetings to tell them more about the program and encourage them to promote the referendum.

Organizing classroom talks. This was a crucial strategy that helped reach large groups of students at once. Local Committee members gained permission to make class announcements which were highly effective. They contacted professors for permission to speak for a few minutes in their classes and were able to make over 60 class announcements that targeted every year of every department. At the end of each announcement, they gave students the chance to vote right away by showing a slide with the link to vote.

Contact the media. Local Committee members contacted multiple media outlets on and off campus to improve their visibility. The referendum received significant coverage across many outlets including: CBC TV,  CBC Radio, CBC News, NTV news, VOCM Radio, The Independent, The Telegram, Radio RIAC, The MUSE and The Gazette.

A successful referendum amidst a global pandemic

In our chat with the executive team of the University of the Fraser Valley Local Committee, their excitement of having just won a referendum – especially during a pandemic – showed clearly. The committee was all set to have an in-person referendum to implement a levy for the first time at the end of March. However, just two weeks before voting day, it was clear that the pandemic was serious and a virtual referendum would be required.

A lot of effort went into preparing and gearing up for the in-person referendum. The Local Committee had set up booths to engage students. They shared their own reasons for voting with other students, asked for phone numbers and sent text messages with more information and details. They visited classes and held events, even though it was mid-semester and students were busy. And then suddenly everything stopped and they had to move to an online campaign.

All this preparation however, did not go in vain. Organizers acted quickly. Luckily they already had phone numbers, so they continued to communicate with students. They could no longer visit classrooms but they wrote letters to students and asked professors to post them on their online portals. They had also maintained a strong social media presence during their entire campaign. They amplified their online reach by providing social media giveaways.

Their success in the referendum is impressive given that the UFV committee has only been operational for 3 years, with the first student having arrived in January this year just before the pandemic. Now, members are preparing to welcome their second student once restrictions are lifted.

Why invest in refugee education?

Around the world, only 3% of refugees have access to post-secondary education – a shockingly low figure compared to the global average of 37%. While refugee students may be able to complete high school in their camps, they often have nowhere to go next. They have limited opportunities to pursue further education opportunities, or join the workforce in their host country. When they do manage to join the workforce, they are often stuck in the informal workforce, which comes with its own disadvantages and risks.

But perhaps our Local Committees say it best:

“The number of refugees that don’t have access to education is high. Many don’t have opportunities to use their intelligence and achieve something bigger. The number is heart-breaking. I want to see two or even more students come over every year. They deserve the right to use what they’ve been given to achieve their goals.” says Catherine Taekema, one of the co-chairs of the Local Committee at UFV.

Gina Dhinsa, the other co-chair at UFV tells us, “Education is a human right and we want everyone to have access.” This is why sustainable funding for refugee students to pursue higher education remains key.

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