York U’s human rights student heroes working hard to ensure refugees feel welcome

From left: Amina Khan, Omaima Masood and Humaima Ashfaque

York University students from a number of clubs working with the York University Syria Response and Refugee Initiative (SRRI) continue to build momentum and recruit new participants to their Refugees Welcome Here! campaign as they organize events and initiatives to raise awareness and support refugees in the community.

Major student-led initiatives this term include an awareness campaign to create fundraising to support sponsored refugee students burdened by transportation loans and a winter coat and clothing drive for clients of the local FCJ Refugee Centre.

“Never before has there been such organization and action at York to support new students who come to Canada as refugees,” said Professor Jennifer Hyndman, director of the Centre for Refugee Studies, who adds that “the human and material support to these new Canadians is vital to their success.”

An inclusive humanitarian vision is present in the motivations of Omaima Masood, a third-year Schulich School of Business student, who is one of the student coordinators of the campaign.

Masood, who also serves as president of the student club Islamic Relief at York, believes in the power of students to achieve positive change. “As students, sometimes, we forget that we can make an impact while at university,” said Masood. “I believe that together we can build a world where youth, children, parents and the elderly can live in happiness and with dignity.”

Many of these efforts come in the context of the University’s increased support of refugees sponsored by its two World University Service of Canada (WUSC) committees. The committees now support five refugee students enabling them to attend York University each year and are seeking more members to help in this effort.

Students also volunteer on each of York’s Syrian refugee sponsorship teams while the Refugees Welcome Here! campaign promotes student involvement on the University’s WUSC committees,  volunteering to assist the sponsor teams by providing support such as Arabic language interpretation and work on issues that affect refugees.

Winter coat and clothing drive to welcome refugees 

The Refugees Welcome Here! winter coat and clothing drive is a central fall initiative that offers a simple but powerful introduction to values of solidarity and refugee support. It is being led by Masood, her fellow campaign leads Humaima Ashfaque and Amina Khan and a coalition of student groups. These include Amnesty International at York, Islamic Relief, McLaughlin College Council, WUSC-Keele and RefugeAid.

Working at the coat and winter clothing drive are FCJ Refugee Centre Co-Direct Francisco Rico , second from left, with Refugees Welcome Here! staff and team members and McLaughlin College Council Members

The groups are collecting winter clothing while tabling and at specified drop off locations. Donations of clean, gently used winter clothing can be dropped off to McLaughlin College Room 107, McLaughlin College Council (MC 143) or Kaneff Tower Room 807 until Dec. 5.

Sajeth Paskaran, student president of McLaughlin College summarizes the college council’s motivations for participating as an effort to foster a community of open, critical, positive, and engaging discourses. “With our current political environment and the negative discourses surrounding refugee rights, it is that much more vital for various organizations and the younger generation to engage in supportive collaborations that bridges people rather than further dividing them,” said Paskaran.

FCJ Refugee Centre Co-Director and prominent refugee advocate Franciso Rico-Martinez, who came to Canada in 1990 with his family as refugees from El Salvador is heartened by these students’ efforts. “It is beautiful to see York students acting in solidarity with humanity from the earliest years of their postsecondary education,” said Rico-Martinez.

“In Central America, we believe that the protection of refugees begins with food and shelter,” he said. “In Canada, with winter coming we believe at our centre that the protection of refugees begins with winter clothes to provide a warm welcome.”

Combating poor public policy and supporting refugee students

Student coalition members have also been making their fellow students aware of the activities of their local WUSC Committee, and raising awareness of refugee transportation loans that sponsored York U students and community members face.

Robert Hanlon, incoming WUSC-Keele committee chair and second-year bachelor of business administration student, works with the York sponsored students. He said that the transportation loans are huge burdens for the new refugee students. “As refugees they come to Canada to seek safety and opportunity but are faced with even more hardship. Now they are in a balancing act with little room for error,” said Hanlon. “Maintaining studies, working long hours, integrating into a completely new culture, and repaying a loan is too much to coordinate and puts the York students in an extremely stressful and vulnerable position.”

Hyndman applauds these students’ efforts while sharing their concerns about the loans. “Refugees who come to Canada and become permanent residents on arrival still have to repay the government for the cost of their transportation to get here,” she said. “Student efforts to highlight this problematic policy are essential to changing poor public policy.”

Syria Response and Refugee Initiative Project Lead John Carlaw, whose work supports York U sponsor groups and educational initiatives with students says that he finds it highly disappointing that students have to fundraise just to help refugee students to a net zero financially as they build their new lives in Canada.

“This inspiring energy by student and other sponsor groups should be freed up for other supports these students and other refugees need,” said Carlaw. “As our students are pointing out, the government’s own research should lead to this conclusion.”

Since last February York students have raised $3500 through bake sales, collections at events and generous staff and faculty support. This is enough to pay off the transportation loans of two students sponsored by the WUSC Keele Committee last year. This year the committee has welcomed four new students to campus, and the students expect that they will need to raise an additional $10,000 to pay off the loans of the new students sponsored by their committee, a goal requiring even more mobilization and community support. WUSC Glendon also confronts such challenges.

Planning ahead

York community members and alumni can support these initiatives by sharing them with students, inviting a classroom visit, making donations or participating directly in activities such as the winter coat and clothing drive.

Gloria Nafziger (centre) with members of the York University Chapter of Amnesty International

Amnesty International Canada’s Refugee Coordinator Gloria Nafziger was an invited speaker at last week’s well attended, student organized We Welcome Refugees event held in the York Senate. Familiar with their work over the last three years, she has been inspired by York University students’ leadership and sees both short- and long-term societal benefits in their efforts.

“York students are demonstrating their commitment to refugees by standing up for refugee rights, creating welcoming communities, supporting local shelters and providing direct support,” said Nafziger. “They are all champions who will continue to be human rights heroes.”

To join or support the Refugees Welcome Here! campaign, contact the student coordinators of the campaign at refwelc@yorku.ca and fill in the Syria Response and Refugee Initiative’s “get involved” questionnaire.