British Columbia

Golden ticket and culture shock: Refugee students start over in Vancouver

In 2006, Tamasha Hussein fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and headed to a refugee camp in Malawi. In 2018, she arrived in Vancouver on a scholarship that provides education and a path to Canadian citizenship. But cultural barriers and loneliness became part of Hussein's new life.

Rare scholarship gives refugee students education and permanent residency. But transition is hard

Tamasha Hussein came to Vancouver in 2018 on a scholarship that provides education and a path to Canadian citizenship. But cultural barriers and loneliness became part of her new life. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Violence uprooted Tamasha Hussein's life when she was six years old. 

Hussein's family fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa in 2006 and headed to a refugee camp in Malawi. 

The move to Malawi allowed the family to live in peace. But when it was time for university, Hussein realized she needed a way out again.

"For a girl to go to school … it was very hard," says Hussein, who is now 20. "You'd find families [in the camp] not believing in education, and my family wasn't an exception."

That's until Hussein got a scholarship from World University Services Canada (WUSC), a one-of-a-kind program that provides scholarship money to young refugees in camps around the world.

It also provides a direct path to a future in Canada by giving each student permanent resident status.

Hussein is pictured in Malawi, which became her new home in 2006 after her family fled violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Heather Dirckze)

'A golden opportunity'

WUSC is a non-profit development organization with a focus on education. Its student refugee program — founded more than four decades ago — works with the federal department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship to bring 130 students to Canada every year.

The students, who are predominantly refugees from the Middle East and Africa, apply to study and resettle as permanent residents in Canada. 

In places like Malawi, students like Hussein have their eyes on the prized scholarship from a young age. 

"In primary school I was working towards this one goal — to study very hard, apply for the WUSC program and end up in Canada," says Hussein. "It was a golden opportunity."

Through WUSC, she was accepted into the University of British Columbia and arrived in Vancouver in 2018 with dreams of a bright future. 

But the transition from Malawi to British Columbia was hard, especially at the beginning. She had difficulty adjusting to Canadian culture and struggled to make friends.

Tamasha's story is also detailed in The Torchbearers podcast, which is produced by the UBC First Generation Students Union and highlights the narratives of first-generation university students and faculty at the school.

'This will be very hard for me'

"I'd sit with [classmates] for four months and not even know their names," Hussein said. "They come with their earphones on when the classes start and then put their earphones back and leave," she recalled.

A similar scene played out at her campus residence. Hussein would paste sticky notes on her roommates' doors to introduce herself, only to find out they rarely left their rooms to interact with each other. 

"I was like, 'Oh ... this will be very hard for me.'"

Over time, Hussein overcame cultural barriers and adjusted to a new life. She spent more time with people like herself — refugee students finding a new life through education.

Hussein found out she wasn't alone. And she realized the purpose that brought her to Canada — to pursue higher education — was bigger than her personal journey.  

"I believe that everybody has the right to education no matter what situation they find themselves in. So when WUSC gives us this opportunity, they expect us to represent the people that were left back home," says Hussein.

Hussein wants to pass on her knowledge to those from home who follow in her footsteps.

Clemance Bisamu, Hussein's friend from the refugee camp in Malawi, arrived in Vancouver last week to study at Simon Fraser University. (Jon Hernandez)

'I have some courage'

Last week, Hussein was at Vancouver International Airport to welcome Clemance Bisamu, a friend from the Malawi refugee camp who's enrolled at Simon Fraser University as a WUSC scholar. 

With Hussein to guide her, Bisamu expects a smooth transition. 

"[Tamasha] was my friend in the camp. And if she adapted to the new environment, then I can too," Bisamu said at the airport, surrounded by other SFU students holding welcome posters.

"I have some courage."

Organizers of the scholarship program say they understand the transition is tough for students arriving at Canadian universities from refugee camps.

But Christine Mylks, manager of overseas programming for WUSC, says the scholarship provides an opportunity for education and citizenship through a single channel, which is rare. 

In addition, Mylks says the scholarship creates a "pull factor" — having students from the camp in Malawi come to Canada every year provides an incentive to not give up.

"It helps students stay in school in that refugee camp because they realize, 'You know what? Upon graduation there is hope — there is something I can do that can take my academic career forward.'"

Tamasha Hussein (below right) was part of a group welcoming new WUSC scholars — including her friend from Malawi, Clemance Bisamu — to Vancouver. (Jon Hernandez)

'They should know there's somebody who cares'

The competition is steep. This year, approximately 245 students from Malawi applied for the scholarship — just 20 won spots.

Altogether, 130 scholars came to Canada this year from 13 countries.

After overcoming odds and cultural barriers to start a new life, one might be tempted to stay in Canada and never look back.

But Hussein wants to use her education to become a nurse and serve others, even if it takes her back to Africa. 

"I want to be out in the field to help communities during war or any hardships … they should know there's somebody who cares, there's a nurse who cares and will help."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a link to The Torchbearers podcast.