From refugee camp in Africa to 1st year Mac students

Photo : Carmela Fragomeni


First-year McMaster University students Alphonse Mwitenawe and Bruce Ishimwe came straight out of a refugee camp in Africa, to the hallowed halls of academia in Hamilton.

They competed with 400 other students at the camp, and were among the 24 selected to attend school in Canada through the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) student refugee program.

The WUSC is a non-profit organization devoted to improving education, employment and empowerment for young people around the world.

Once here, the students get permanent resident status.

“Life is different here,” says Alphonse, 23. “Back in the camp, I didn’t live in good conditions. It was crowded, and people are not free to do what they want.”

Both young men were born in Rwanda, and arrived at the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi as children — Alphonse was six and Bruce was eight. Their families fled persecution and violence that neither of them wishes to elaborate on.

They attended the refugee camp school, where they learned everything in English — Malawi’s official language — and graduated from high school.

As well, they both worked as interpreters with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and volunteered at the camp health centre.

Alphonse was also a volunteer adult education teacher with a Pentecostal church organization, and completed certificate courses in youth work (through the Jesuit Refugee Service), in peace communication and conflict resolution, computer literacy, and business skills.

They were the only two refugees to come to McMaster through the WUSC.

Both Bruce and Alphonse are enrolled in social-sciences studies.

“After Grade 12, there is nothing,” says Bruce, 20. “Only this, for the lucky ones.”

They arrived in Canada on Aug. 23 with 11 others who were dispersed among Trent, Queen’s, Western and York universities. Their first-year tuition, residence, and school supplies are paid for through student fees at participating universities and colleges.

At McMaster, it means each student pays $1.53 a year to support the WUSC refugee students on campus.

Each year, about 130 refugee students attend post-secondary school in Canada, at a cost of $20,000 to $30,000 per student, says WUSC spokesperson Joni Ward. But after first year, the students must pay their own way and must eventually pay back the WUSC for their flight here.

They can apply for bursaries, student loans and scholarships. They also get help finding part-time jobs.

Bruce and Alphonse are impressed with McMaster and its “very beautiful campus” and “great people, great professors and students.”

All the students, says Alphonse, appear to have “visions of making the world successful.”

Of course, there are some things they miss from back home, like the food, but “with time, we’ll get used to it,” says Bruce.

On campus, he finds himself eating chicken wings almost every day and says, “The chicken in our country, you really feel like you’re eating chicken. Here, you feel like you are eating chips.”

Other difficulties come from not having grown up in Canadian culture, they say.

“There’s so much sophistication (here),” says Bruce. “Everything is so new.”

And they haven’t made a lot of friends yet, but are optimistic they will.

One friend they did make and have relied on quite a bit is Jen Chan, co-president of the McMaster WUSC club.

She met them at Toronto’s Pearson airport when they arrived, brought them to Mac, settled them into residence, gave them a tour, and booked appointments for them with academic advisers and then accompanied them to the appointments.

And she has been their go-to person ever since.

The WUSC club helps the refugee students in every way they can — from transitioning to life in Canada, helping both academically and with practical things like getting OHIP coverage or a cellphone.

Students in the club are passionate about helping the refugee students, says Chan, 20, of Richmond Hill. Some of them have had family who came here as foreign students, as did Chan’s own parents, she says.

“A lot of work goes into helping them out,” she says of helping the refugee students. But the club members really care about them and want to help.

At the camp, before coming here, Bruce and Alphonse say they learned about Canada and McMaster, but what they were told doesn’t compare to the real thing.

“It turns out Canada is more beautiful than I anticipated,” says Bruce.

Alphonse says he knew Canada was a great country, but he did not expect to be so impressed with its inclusive society. He is surprised by his experience so far, that everyone is accepting and welcoming.

“People have respect toward each other, regardless of someone’s age or background,” he says.

“The multicultural system here — the country is so diverse with people of different backgrounds. It’s so impressive how they live together in harmony, without having conflict with each other. It’s something which is unusual,” he adds.

“People here are so friendly. They are different from what I’m used to.”

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