JWR Articles: Commentary - Foreign Students at Brock University (Source: S. James Wegg) - March 26, 2002
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Foreign Students at Brock University

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This article first appeared in the March 22, 2002 edition of the St. Catharines Standard
The journey of a lifetime from the Sudan to St. Catharines

“When you arrive in Rwanda, and you really love your people, and would like to contribute to the future … you decide to stay,” writes former refugee student Innocent Kabenga four months after returning to his native country for the first time since fleeing shortly after his birth.

For Sudanese student Tong Abenego Akok, being in Canada means “I am now a citizen of my country of origin and my country of asylum.

“I have respect for everyone’s ideas and equality. I want to give something back,” he says with determination as we discuss his first year in Niagara as a refugee student sponsored by the World University Service of Canada’s (WUSC) Student Refugee Program.

Having just returned from the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Gift Planners, I was eager to learn more about a charitable initiative that did not depend on sponsorship “deals,” clever accounting, or willful blindness to achieve its intended result.

In the late 1990s, Akok, a native of Sudan and member of the d’Inka Atote tribe, had finished his secondary education and wanted to continue his studies at university. However, the prerequisite was compulsory military service, which had become a one-way ticket to the front lines of the war torn country for many of his friends. His Christian instincts and responsibility to family forced him, like Kabenga many years previously, to abandon his home for a refugee camp in Kenya.

Without a financial sponsor Akok could not continue his schooling. WUSC was his only hope. But even though he qualified through language and skill testing for a placement, there were not enough openings. He waited another year.

When I asked how he reacted to WUSC’s suggestion of enrolling in a Canadian university, his thoughtful face burst into a toothy grin “Yes! But of course I will go,” he said.

The neophyte flyer’s two-day journey began last August in Jomo Kenyatta Airport then he was routed through Johannesburg, Paris, Montréal, finally ending in Toronto. “I was so tired, but then I saw my name on a sign held by Susan Spearey, (chair of the Brock WUSC committee). She drove me to my new home and helped get me settled.”

Spearey’s involvement as a volunteer is a labour of love. “His baggage was missing, immigration was slow; he looked shell-shocked but poised,” she recalled. “He gamely tried everything the cafeteria had to offer, but more in search of something familiar than from hunger.”

“It’s important to have people from different cultures in our population,” says Dr. David Atkinson, president of Brock University. “We learn from each other even as tolerance and understanding increase.”

For 15 years, the students, faculty and administration of Brock University have raised funds and donated services to ensure that the WUSC-selected refugee gets a good start both educationally and culturally. Nearly $11,000 is required to provide tuition, accommodation, food, clothes and a small living allowance.

Atkinson feels it’s a good investment. “The longstanding participation by Brock and many of its faculty in international research initiatives has ensured that this program, which must compete with a growing list of other projects looking for support, remains a priority.”

The refugee program at participating universities is a needed balance to the very competitive pursuit of other international students who have the means to pay the exponentially higher tuition fees than those charged to Canadians.

After the first year, the refugees must fund themselves. Part time jobs and student loans fill the financial requirements, but support continues in other ways. Friendships evolve, compatriots found, and members of the local community—particularly during the holiday periods—open their homes and their hearts to these lonely students who will repay this kindness and unequivocal acceptance many times over in the years ahead.

The events of Sept. 11 caused an unsettling and difficult time for many immigrants and refugees. Atkinson was pleased to report that there have been no related incidents or backlash on campus.

Kabenga, settling in to his new job as an assistant lecturer at the University of Butare, offered to return Brock’s generosity: “If bin Laden continues his threats against North America, I will sponsor you as landed immigrants in Rwanda,” he wrote.

Akok is also grateful. “I can’t thank you enough for this opportunity, which has made my family so proud,” he says. “I only wish that more students could have a chance to participate.”

The local WUSC committee agrees. Faculty and staff are being asked to contribute and a student referendum will be held in the fall to endorse a levy.

Unlike the American Red Cross, which required litigation to force it to distribute some of the funds donated for disaster relief, at Brock it can be seen first-hand that charity does begin at home.

January 2003 - Update:

The students of Brock University have overwhelmingly approved an ancillary fee for the Student Refugee Sponsorship Program. 81% voted in favour of the referendum question during polling in December.

The seemingly small levy of $0.20 per half credit and $0.40 per full credit will produce $15,000-20,000 annually—enough to fund another refugee student in association with the World University Service of Canada’s sponsorship program.

“Extensive promotion by the Brock Students’ Union of the need for this funding made the difference this time,” said committee member Warren Franklin. “Last year’s referendum failed when we didn’t reach quorum, but [this time] Rachel Cipryk (also on the WUSC student committee) used her extraordinary organizational skills and got the vote out.”

Twenty-three hundred voted, more than double the requirement.

Contributions have also been made by the University, faculty and staff members, and from ongoing fund-raising events. JWR

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Source - S. James Wegg
Interviewee - David Atkinson
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