January 26, 2015

Sponsoring a Community:

The story of a refugee student at McGill

By Albert Park

There is an unmistakable trace of excitement in the voice of U2 Pharmacology student, Robert Ishimwe, as he describes his education at McGill.

“[I] couldn’t imagine all this five years ago,” he said. “Being among all these amazing people and resources—it’s like a dream.”

With a smile on his face, he elaborates on what his journey to McGill means to him as a sponsored student.

“We grew up, waking up to see the happy faces of the students who have gotten a chance to pursue post-secondary education in other countries—it’s something we dreamt of since we [were] children,” Ishimwe said.  

There is something unique, yet familiar, about Ishimwe’s narrative. Listening to his story brings back memories of being introduced to new faces for the first time in McGill’s crowded lecture halls. Despite how many diverse backgrounds, stories, and sensibilities existed in one room, the varying experiences of students were overshadowed by an infallible feeling of camaraderie of enthusiastic students freshly acquainted into the McGill community.

Robert Ishimwe

Ishimwe was born in Rwanda. He came to study at McGill in 2013 through the Student Refugee Program, which is part of McGill’s local World University Service of Canada (WUSC) committee, WUSC McGill. The organization is a Canadian non-profit working to provide education and employment opportunities to disadvantaged youth around the world.

On top of his studies, Ishimwe is the vice-president treasurer of WUSC McGill, and enjoys playing intramural soccer and volleyball. Around campus, he is often spotted buried in textbooks at McLennan-Redpath or exercising at the fitness centre.

Ishimwe grew up in the Dzaleka refugee camp in the Republic of Malawi, a country located in southeastern Africa. At the age of two, he was resettled in the camp with his family after they were forced to flee their country due to the Rwandan genocide. To this day, the camp holds around 20,000 people, including Ishimwe’s own parents. Residents are supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and provided monthly food portions, as well as free access to health care. The residents are not given the choice to leave the camp, with law enforcement surrounding the area.

Ishimwe is quick to point out that living in a refugee camp is a subjective experience, which affects forced migrants in different ways. It is not something that can be generalized.

“Refugees come from different situations and places,” Ishimwe said.  “Sympathy is not really necessary; and at the same time, you have to understand and respect that not everyone wants to talk about their experiences.”  

Ishimwe expresses the difficulty in finding the balance between bringing up some of the more negative aspects of camp life while also being careful not to glorify the experience. He recollects his own experiences growing up at the Dzaleka camp with a pragmatic view.

“It is not something you can glorify as being a beautiful place,” he said. “But as someone who grew up there, it doesn’t feel like a camp; it’s home [....] After graduation, I will visit the camp again—my parents are there after all.”

Sponsored students and education

At McGill, one can meet other sponsored students like Ishimwe. WUSC McGill coordinates the SRP, which has supported 36 students since 1987, sponsoring two new students each academic year. Currently, there are 10 sponsored students studying at McGill from Sri Lanka, Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi.

There are around 60 million refugees around the world—a number growing by the day, largely due to the escalating armed conflicts in Syria. In response to the forced migration crisis, the McGill administration and WUSC McGill have recently announced a pledge to triple the number of sponsored students arriving on campus for the 2016-2017 academic year.

“Tripling the number of SRP students is only for [...] 2016-2017,” Sujay Neupane, a PhD student in neuroscience and the SRP coordinator of WUSC McGill, said. “It was made possible by extra funding from McGill, with four of the sponsored students from Syria being funded by the administration, while two will be supported by the existing WUSC levy. This pledge came as a response to the current crisis—brought to light by the photograph of a deceased migrant [Alan Kurdish] on a beach back in August.”

Providing education for individuals with refugee status is a long-term solution to the crisis. Not only does it ensure that individuals affected by forced migration have the means to become empowered and knowledgeable enough to rebuild their own lives, but it provides a gateway to help entire communities affected by wars or civil conflicts to rebuild.

Despite this, only one per cent of young refugees are currently enrolled in post-secondary education.

For Ishimwe, the SRP was very meaningful—its impact runs back to recollections of his childhood.

“I always studied very hard when I was young,” he said. “We all did. The [SRP] was something we all knew about as children, and it really provided the motivation for us to work hard.”

Ishimwe’s diligent academic habits are qualities that serve him to this day as a McGill student. Growing up, he enjoyed science; in particular, he remembers one biology teacher who ignited his interest in life science. During the SRP application process, prospective students are given the chance to express their inspirations and interests. Through this information, the program applies to different schools and programs on behalf of the sponsored students, which is how Ishimwe ended up in the Bachelor of Science program at McGill University. While he did not specifically choose to come to McGill, Ishimwe is happy with where he ended up.

“If I had a choice, I would definitely have said McGill,” he said. “Ever since I got to McGill, I knew right then and there that my life would not be the same, and not in that poetic way, but the feeling was so real this time.”

For many students like Ishimwe, the SRP is the only financial means to pursue post-secondary education and leave refugee camps. Several of Ishimwe’s friends from his home town have gone to other universities across Canada, such as University of Toronto, University of Ottawa, and University of British Columbia—all sponsored by the SRP.

Life at McGill

While Ishimwe might be accustomed to his life as a McGill student today, leaving Malawi and stepping into the busy streets of Montreal for the first time in August 2013 was a novel experience for him. Surrounded by new people and ideas, Ishimwe naturally found himself feeling bewildered and culture-shocked, despite his enthusiasm.

“For the first day you are very excited, and then for the next few days you are confused,” Ishimwe said. “You live one life for almost 20 years, and come to a new one—it’s very strange.”

In particular, Ishimwe recollects his experience of moving into the RVC residence and realizing that it was his first time using an elevator.

“I’d only seen them once or twice at the UNHCR Building—it was strange that it became a regular part of my life,” he said.

Coming to Canada for the first time with limited proficiency in English, he did not know what to expect. However, after two years, Ishimwe is enjoying his life in Montreal. During his free time, he likes to go sightseeing in the Old Port with his roommates and climb up Mount Royal.

On top of helping to fundraise the money necessary to sponsor students and raise awareness about the issue of forced migration on McGill campus, the committee is also responsible for providing a welcoming platform of support for sponsored students coming into the country.

Through weekly meetings with other sponsored students and members of the WUSC, Ishimwe was able to share his stories with them, talk about life at McGill, and improve his English. Ishimwe credits the local McGill WUSC committee for helping him grow accustomed to his new life.

“Everything is a learning process,” he said. “It can be frustrating at first but you get used to it. The local committee was really helpful. They helped me find my place here.”

Bernice Samuel, U2 Life Science, also credits WUSC McGill and the SRP in helping her adjust to Canada after she arrived from Malawi to McGill’s Macdonald campus.

“WUSC McGill has not only helped me settle in McGill but also in Canada,” Samuel said. “It gave me a resettlement, [and] a place to call home [....] The local committee was very supportive—they showed me around Montreal and also taught me everything I had to know about Canada.”

New sponsored students are often integrated into WUSC McGill  through a very organic process. In a way, the sponsored students form a network of support amongst one another.

“The nice thing about the SRP is that the committee becomes self-organizing because last year's sponsored students help the newly arrived ones according to what they experienced the year before,” Neupane said.



The interaction between WUSC McGill and the sponsored student extends far past the creation of a support network. Ishimwe does his part to give back to WUSC by helping to ensure the sustainability of the SRP. He is a fervent member of the WUSC McGill team, participating in meetings to help plan events and share information about the group with his fellow peers. It is through the work of students like Ishimwe, that McGill can continue to bring in sponsored students.

For many McGill students, the forced migration crisis is not easy to grasp. While stories about refugees and their struggles are publicized heavily in the media, McGill WUSC hopes that hearing stories firsthand from sponsored students like Ishimwe will leave an impact and create a better understanding about the situation amongst the student body.

“I don’t mind telling people my story,” Ishimwe said. “If it helps raise more awareness about forced migration, it will help the WUSC reach their goals.”

Neupane provided insight on the importance of increasing the dialogue on the forced migration crisis on campus, and WUSC’s initiatives to meet this goal.  

“We would like to set a platform at McGill to have a space for SRP students to tell their stories,” he said. “Increasing awareness about forced migration indirectly helps in understanding why a group like ours exists. In turn, increasing awareness about our group helps in understanding and thinking about sustainable solution to the problem of forced migration.”

The SRP has been levied by a fee of 50 cents per term from every enrolled McGill student. While not every McGill student is aware of their contribution or the purpose of it, it is through their aid that McGill was able to provide education for sponsored students. Thus, the program is a community-driven effort.

According to Neupane, the community-driven aspect of the SRP is what attracts and motivates many of the members in WUSC McGill.

“This is one of the very few 'charity' programs which has a direct impact and result,” he said. “Because it is funded by students, it is very much community-driven and there is no involvement of any business entity which is, unfortunately, usually focused on profit and goodwill.”  

However, the 50 cent contribution has never been adjusted for inflation, since its introduction in 1987. As a result, the funds at the disposal of the program are running out, especially given the increasing push to sponsor more students. The tripling of student refugee sponsorships this year is not provided by the student levy.

According to Neupane, the continuation of bringing in more student refugees will only be possible through a levy increase.  

“In 2017-2018, we are back to [sponsoring] two students,” said Neupane. “We are trying to increase that number to three by doing a referendum this semester [....] We also have a word of support and pledge from [the McGill Syrian Students’ Association] on campus. We could increase [the number of students], but we will need to increase the levy for that. I am doubtful that McGill will keep funding four or more students every year. I would prefer that SRP is supported by a student levy than by the McGill administration because of aforementioned reasons—community-driven, profit/fame-free.”

In order to address this issue, McGill WUSC is preparing a referendum to increase the levy to $2. In order for this to be successful, Neupane states that the support of the McGill student body is necessary.  

“Increasing awareness about this program aids in making [it] sustainable, especially because it is funded directly by the students via a levy,” Neupane said. “If students are aware about this program, it will not be difficult to increase the levy through a referendum whenever needed.”

But McGill students’ support of sponsored students is not purely monetary. For Ishimwe, his education at McGill would not have been nearly as rewarding if not for the people he met here.

“The university was a big part of why I was able to integrate so easily into Canada. It’s easy to make friends here,” Ishimwe said. “The friends I made in my classes during my first year helped make me feel at home here.”

It is not difficult to understand that this sentiment is not exclusively associated to sponsored students like Ishimwe. McGill University has a high ratio of international students, with students from  from over 140 countries coming to live, learn, and grow together. While many of these students initially step onto campus without knowing anyone in Montreal, the university provides them with opportunities to make connections, whether it is in class, extracurricular activities, or through the community’s diverse range of student societies.

Being able to meet individuals from different cultures as well as hear their stories at McGill serves well in broadening a student’s outlook, which is arguably one of the main purposes of post-secondary education.

Neupane, who has known Ishimwe for two years, says that this is one of the main reasons he likes working with WUSC.

“The experiential learning I get from my friendship and interactions with sponsored students is nothing of the sort I have learned from any books or classes. It has been extremely valuable to my own personal growth,” Neupane explained.

The multicultural aspect of McGill is also highly important to Ishimwe.

“I really enjoy the diversity here. People can talk about their lives. It makes it easier to blend in,” he said. “Everybody has a story.”

Ishimwe’s sentiments provide a better understanding of how the forced migration issue should be tackled on campus. Communication is the key to building a community. The SRP is a community-driven program; it is funded by the student body and it is up to the students of McGill to provide a welcoming home to sponsored students. If McGill students desire to make a change and come up with a collective solution to the forced migration crisis, the first step is understanding the story of each individual sponsored student.

McGill students come from different countries and have different stories—the one thing that ties the student body together is the shared opportunity to pursue a post-secondary education.

Ishimwe’s favourite memory from the Dzaleka refugee camp is his graduation from the Dzaleka Secondary School.

“It may not have been that glamorous, but it felt that way at the time,” he said. “My friends and I felt so confident, like we could do anything in the world.”

This memory is reflected in his perceptions of the McGill community. When thinking about what stuck out to him at McGill, Ishimwe takes a long pause to think of the right words to say.

“Everyone is so enthusiastic about something, and they feel [...] they can do anything,” he mused. “It still challenges me up to date to keep growing in my aspirations in life.”