Student Success

Student Refugee Program gets a strong start at the U of L

Abdullah Mouslli didn’t want to become one of the lost generation whose life and future was limited because of the civil war in Syria. He’d seen it happen to his friends, their lives cut short when they joined rebels because their families had no money to send them to university and good work opportunities were few and far between.

After he graduated from high school in Damascus, Syria in 2012, Mouslli enrolled at Damascus University to study architecture.

“I studied there for one semester but it wasn’t safe at all, especially for young men at the age of 18 and 19. There is mandatory military service in Syria so if you are at that age, you are probably going to be taken for the military service,” he says, adding that young men who are studying can delay their military service. “When I graduated it was very chaotic so they could stop you at any checkpoint. They tell you that your documents are fake and they take you into military service. It happened to lots of guys.”

Members of the WUSC committee at the U of L pose for a photo with Abdullah Mouslli, a student refugee from Syria. From left to right are Farah Rajan, Mouslli, Jamie Lewis, Elise Pundyk and Taylor Myndio.

Mouslli moved to neighbouring Jordan to continue studying architecture. He was in his second semester when a rocket tore through his family’s pharmacy in Al-Bukamal, destroying the store and his family’s livelihood along with it. He had to drop out of university because his family could no longer afford to pay for his studies.

“It’s a crazy war. I don’t actually know who bombed that building because you can’t even know who is who and which is which,” he says.

Mouslli, now 22 years old, is the youngest of six children. He was born in Al-Bukamal, a rural city in eastern Syria close to the Iraq border. His father, a pharmacist, died in a vehicle crash when Mouslli was only a few months old. An uncle, who still lives in Syria and is like a father to Mouslli, took over managing the family’s pharmacy and real estate businesses. When Mouslli was nine, his family moved to Damascus. His three older brothers were of university age; two had moved to Damascus and another to Jordan to pursue post-secondary education. And just like his brothers, Mouslli had grown up believing he would be able to attend university.

“After I dropped out of university, it was really hard for me,” he says. “When I was a kid, I never thought of money as an obstacle towards my education. All of my family got university degrees so I thought it would be like a piece of cake. I thought that the only hope for me was applying for scholarships. I applied for any scholarship I saw.”

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Elise Pundyk was studying Art History and Museum Studies at the University of Lethbridge, and could not get the image of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after his family fled the war in Syria, out of her mind. Jamie Lewis, who was in her first year of studies at the U of L and part of the Global Citizenship Cohort, was similarly affected.

“I had an overwhelming feeling of helplessness,” says Lewis. “It was at the height of media coverage regarding the Syrian refugee crisis. For so many of us, I think it put a human face onto this abstract political concept that we hadn’t been able to previously understand to its full extent. Having this visual was a spur for a lot of us.”

She spoke to Dr. Shelly Wismath, her professor in the Global Citizenship Cohort, who in turn referred her to Dr. Anne Dymond, a professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts. Dymond and Chaplain Erin Phillips were instrumental in establishing the U of L Refugee Action Committee, which was focusing its efforts on bringing a Syrian family to Lethbridge.

Dymond and Pundyk had begun to explore the possibility of starting a local chapter of a national student organization—World University Service Canada—that helps refugees through its Student Refugee Program (SRP). At least 20 students had indicated an interest in helping the Refugee Action Committee and together they founded a WUSC committee at the U of L. In short order, they elected an executive and got to work fundraising the roughly $26,000 they would need to bring a refugee student to the U of L for one year. They’d been told it usually takes a couple of years to establish a successful local committee and get the necessary funds in place.

Pundyk and Grace Wirzba, the first WUSC co-chairs, talked to University administrators, the U of L International office and the U of L Refugee Action Committee. The President’s Office supplied funding to assist with housing and food, Paul Pan of the International Office helped secure significant funding from the west-side Scotiabank, which matched funds raised at the annual International Dinner, and Lethbridge Family Services - Immigrant Services lent their expertise in the process of welcoming a refugee. The WUSC committee held a bake sale, a bottle drive and a movie and pizza night. When Scotiabank matched the donations from the silent auction at the International Dinner, they knew they had reached their goal and pulled it off in four months.

“There were lots of tears at the International dinner,” says Farah Rajan, a WUSC member.

The committee, with 15 active members, is now focusing on an upcoming referendum that will be held in conjunction with the U of L Students’ Union elections sometime in early March. The referendum will ask students to support a levy of $2 per semester to fund one refugee student per year at the U of L.

Back in Jordan, Mouslli was applying for scholarships, including the WUSC Student Refugee Program. He also completed a diploma in multi-media at a community college in Jordan and volunteered with international organizations. His last position put him in contact with people from all over the world and, since English was the official language in the office, he improved upon the English he’d learned in public school. Most of his family members lived nearby, including his mother, sister and two brothers—his two other brothers live in Germany. After he had to drop out of university, relatives offered to loan him money to continue his education. Mouslli turned down the offer because he felt he wouldn’t be able to repay the loan if he stayed in Jordan. He explains that Syrians are not allowed to work in Jordan but the government often looks the other way. Jordanian employers hire Syrians illegally and pay them lower wages. He says his brothers, one is a pharmacist and the other has a master’s degree in finance, earn about half of what a Jordanian citizen in the same job would earn.

Mouslli pinned his hopes on getting a scholarship and he was accepted into the WUSC SRP. Last August, he left Jordan bound for the U of L to study new media.

WUSC members and Mouslli share a laugh.

Lewis and Pundyk were part of the group waiting to meet him at the airport.

“We had no idea what to expect. We knew his first name and we knew he had good enough English to get through the WUSC and governmental screening processes but we didn’t know how his conversational English would be. We didn’t know if he was an outgoing person or an introvert. We knew nothing,” says Lewis. “He walked into the airport and it was like the most wonderful, happy experience. He was so energetic. He’d been travelling for 27 hours and he was chatting with all of us.”

Lewis, Pundyk, Wirzba and other members of WUSC helped Mouslli settle in, taking him shopping for groceries, to the mall and to a pancake breakfast for his first taste of maple syrup.

“It was so much fun to find out how much I had in common with this person from a completely different background and place. Yet, it’s like he fit right in. He became a part of our little WUSC family immediately,” says Lewis. “It was just so smooth.”

“When I knew I was going to Canada, I educated myself to avoid cultural shock and yeah, it worked,” says Mouslli. “The thing I was most shocked about was landing here in a small, tiny city. For me, it’s like a village but for Canadians it’s like the third biggest city in Alberta. I’m not used to walking the street and it’s empty.”

He admits he first thought he wouldn’t stay beyond a year but now he’s planning to complete his degree. The quiet means fewer distractions from his studies and living in Lethbridge is more affordable than in a large city.

“For me it’s a life-changing chance. It’s not just to study; it’s also to be in Canada where there is equality and you’re not being treated as a third- or fourth-class citizen,” he says. “I feel that I can actually get a student loan because I know that I’ll be able to work afterwards and pay it back. For Canadians, it’s a nightmare to take a student loan but for me it’s a golden opportunity.”

Mouslli has already found a job working part time as an interpreter. He plans to be financially independent by the fall so he can cover his living expenses and take out a student loan to cover tuition costs.

“Adjusting here wasn’t a problem. I think it’s all about the values. It’s not about where you are from or your religion or your race. It’s about the values you share and I share lots of values with Canadians.”