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‘It changed my life’: How an Ontario university tuition levy helps students affected by war become grads

Alik Sarian uprooted her life twice for her university education.

On Tuesday, she will be one of hundreds of students receiving a bachelor of science degree at Wilfrid Laurier University during convocation ceremonies, and says she has her classmates to thank.

Sarian is originally from Aleppo, Syria. In 2016, she moved with her family to Lebanon because of conflict, and attended Haigazian University in Beirut with a scholarship to study biology.

In 2019, a friend told her about a program at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., called International Students Overcoming War (ISOW), which partners with educational and entrepreneurial program Jusoor Syria to bring students to Canada from areas affected by war so they can study safely.

Sarian applied and was accepted. She moved again, this time to Canada.

“We had already uprooted our family once and we had to re-establish all the social ties and that work, get to know people, essentially build our lives from scratch,” Sarian said.

“Having to do that the second time was a bit harder considering that Canada is a culturally different country than moving between Syria and Lebanon.

But the people involved in the ISOW program helped make the transition to Waterloo easy, she said. 

“Everyone was so nice, so welcoming. It was amazing how everyone was willing to go the extra mile, take the extra step.”

it changed my life how an ontario university tuition levy helps students affected by war become grads
Sarian with a statue of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a former Canadian prime minister and namesake for the Waterloo university where she’s earned her bachelor of science degree. (Submitted by Alik Sarian)

Sarian learned how to navigate the banking system — “we did not have any credit cards in Syria” — and she fell in love with the natural environment.

“I came in the end of summer, the beginning of fall. So just the beautiful fall colours, the trees, the leaves that were just breathtaking,” she said.

Student-funded program

The program was started in 2014 by students at Laurier. Each student, through their tuition fees, contributes $8 to the scholarship levy, and the group uses that money for scholarships for those in need.

Over the years, it has brought 23 students to the school from conflict zones such as Gaza, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Myanmar.

Ritu Singh, president of the program, said all students benefit from it.

“Every year a new cohort of students have an opportunity to lead ISOW by taking on challenging projects and producing high-quality work,” Singh said.

“Students that work and interact with ISOW can supplement their university education in a unique and constructive way. Every year, the Laurier student body generates a new wave of energized commitment and support. In this way, ISOW is a unique organization that makes Laurier a more interesting, vibrant and distinct university.”

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Members of the ISOW group, based at Wilfrid Laurier University, were in Ottawa in April to talk about expanding the program and helping more students in conflict areas go to school in Canada. This photo shows students meeting with representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (Gavin Brockett/International Students Overcoming War)

In April, students travelled to Ottawa to talk to federal politicians about the program, and Singh said they provided a “compelling case” for investment in the program.

‘They blew me away’

One of the people they spoke to was Ontario Independent Senator Ratna Omidvar, who said the students impressed her.

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Ratna Omidvar, an Independent senator for Ontario, met with students representing the ISOW program when they visited Ottawa in April. Omidvar says the students and their proposal impressed her. (CBC)

“I said to someone right after that [meeting], these are policy and political leaders of the future, because they had a grasp on legislation, they had a grasp on policy and they had crafted out not just an aspirational ask, but a very tangible proposal for their efforts to protect students who are at risk in conflict zones,” Omidvar said.

“And they were so young. They blew me away.”

Omidvar, who is known for her work in migration, diversity and inclusion, said she has both a personal and a parliamentarian response to the program and what the students presented to her.

“The emotional response is obviously right up there. Of course, you want to save students who are at risk. Young people should be allowed to get on with their lives if they find themselves in conflict zones and their lives are upended.” 

She said the parliamentarian’s response is that the program also meets needs for the country.

“Canada continues to need talent. It continues to need to bring people into the country who can very quickly become part of our workforce and build our nation as we all know we need to.”

Marie-France Lalonde, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, also met with the group in April and said they were “extraordinary ambassadors” for the program.

“We know that international students make immense economic, cultural and social contributions to our communities, and it is important for Canada that we continue to welcome international students that are impacted by war,” she said in an emailed statement.

Up next: Applying to med school

Sarian will graduate with the highest grade-point average (GPA) among all undergraduate students this year at Laurier. She’s also the recipient of the Governor General’s Silver Medal — the highest distinction available to undergraduate students.

Her family, who returned to live in Syria, will watch her cross the stage at convocation through a live video feed.

WATCH | Alik Sarian on what she noticed when she came to Canada.

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Alik Sarian on differences between Syria, Lebanon and Canada

3 days ago

Duration 1:18

Alik Sarian is from Syria and studied in Lebanon before she attended Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., as part of a program called International Students Overcoming War. She says she noticed some big differences when she arrived in Canada.

She said right now, she’s applying for permanent residency in Canada and then plans to apply to medical school to become a doctor. She plans to take a gap year to find work — preferably in the medical field to give her some experience — and raise the money for tuition.

She said she sees a future for herself in Canada, all thanks to students at Laurier.

“The way we like to contextualize the levy is by saying a cup of coffee from Starbucks can change someone’s life.”

Sarian said people have asked her: Is that real, can $8 really have that much of an impact on a person’s life?

“I’m here to say that it does,” she said. “It changed my life.” 

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