Hussein Sheikh doesn’t look like the refugees you might expect to see in the news. Wearing a bright blue shirt with the words, “Education changes the world” splashed across the front, his grin is as contagious as his excitement for refugee sponsorship. In excellent English, he tells the story of how his life was changed four years ago when he was chosen by the World University Service of Canada (WUSC)’s Student Refugee Program to come and study at the University of Manitoba.
Hussein explains that for his entire 24 years of life, he has been “a citizen of nowhere,” born when his parents were on the run from Somalia to Kenya and spending 18 years in a refugee camp. “They call it an open prison,” he says. With no birth certificate and no citizenship, he could neither travel freely in Kenya nor return to Somalia. There were no opportunities for employment, and his growing family has relied on the United Nations and other NGO supports for over two decades.
As a young child, Hussein learned that education was his only chance to leave the camp and start a new life for himself and his family. In the camp of 400,000 people, there were only three high schools, operated by an NGO called Windle Trust. Only the primary school students with the highest grades were granted entrance. With the help of a solar lamp donated by Windle Trust, he studied late into the night, determined to be one of the lucky few given entry into one of the high schools.
His efforts paid off, and Hussein graduated at the top of his class, not only from primary school but from high school as well. He scored high marks on the national Kenyan exam, a standardized test given to refugee students as well as Kenyans. “It was the Swahili that really got me”, Hussein laughs, looking back. He’s referring to the requirement that students demonstrate a high proficiency in the Kenyan national language, even though they will never be allowed to become Kenyan citizens. But the young man was determined. “I knew that if I didn’t get into the WUSC program, my life is limited to the camp.”
Hussein’s high marks caused him to become one of a few students selected by Windle Trust to be referred to WUSC for their Student Refugee Program. He then underwent English proficiency and academic testing and an interview process before being placed on a final list to be sponsored by a Canadian university. Finally, when he was 21, Hussein was sponsored by the WUSC local committee at the University of Manitoba and began his degree in the frigid January of 2013.
When asked how it feels to be a permanent resident of Canada and no longer a refugee, Hussein is hesitant. “It feels good but my family is still refugees,” he responds quietly. Hussein is now the Coordinator of the Student Refugee Program at the U of M, working to bring more student refugees to campus. The group has even begun an endowment fund to ensure that students will be sponsored every year for long into the future.
For his part, Hussein has dreams of a Master’s degree in public health because “in the camps, people die from preventable diseases.” Having been on the receiving end of many NGOs and UN agencies over the years, his hope is to one day work for the UN himself, giving back to those who would benefit most from his education. In the meantime, he’s focusing on finishing his degree in Environmental Science and paying back his student loan, because the University only covered his first year of tuition. After that, he will focus on saving enough money to sponsor his family to come to Canada as well.
In light of the dramatic increase in refugees worldwide due to the Syrian crisis, the U of M WUSC committee is hoping to double its sponsorship for 2016, to four students each year instead of just two. St. John’s College, at the U of M, is raising money to cover two years of room and board for two Syrian students coming through the program. “When I see people fundraising, I really feel hope,” Hussein explains, “It makes me feel like people care.”
St. John’s has a target goal of $48,000. To make a donation and be part of changing a Syrian student’s life, call their development office at 204-474-9350 or email Jackie Markstrom.