Canadian 'Dreamer' in Edmonton sees new university program as his best hope

A young Ethiopian man living in Edmonton hopes getting into a university in Toronto will help him and his family stay in Canada.

20-year-old on temporary work permit can't apply to regular university

Naol is studying math at summer school in the hopes of getting into a pilot project at York University for Canadian "Dreamers." (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

A young Ethiopian man living in Edmonton hopes getting into York University in Toronto would help him and his family stay in Canada.

20-year-old Naol arrived in Edmonton with his mother and younger brother three and a half years ago. In 2017, he graduated from St. Joseph High School.

Right now he's in summer school to get enough credits to apply to York University, where he's hoping to earn a degree in science.

"After I get my science degree hopefully go into a profession, maybe engineering," Naol said.

CBC News isn't using Naol's last name because his immigration status in Canada is precarious.

He and his family left Ethiopia because they are Oromo, an ethnic group that has been subjected to violence and marginalization.

Naol said his mother feared for the safety of her sons in Ethiopia so they moved to Canada.

​Only university for 'Canadian Dreamers'

York is the first Canadian university to give so-called Canadian Dreamers a chance to earn a degree. "Dreamers" originated in the United States, where the term describes undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and hope to remain in the country.

In Canada, students who get into York University's pilot project aren't charged the same fees and tuition as other international students. Instead, they pay domestic student tuition, which is about a quarter of international tuition.

The university is offering 10 places to immigrant students whose status in Canada is in limbo.

Naol fits that bill.

His mother works two jobs on a temporary work permit she has to renew every several months.

Naol also has a temporary work permit that allowed him to work at the concession in Rogers Place while he went to high school.

"They're allowed to work in Canada but they're not allowed to be seen as legal residents of Canada," said Sara Carpenter, an assistant professor of education at the University of Alberta who is helping Naol with his York University application.

Naol and his family could be deported or detained by Canadian immigration officials at any time, Carpenter said.

Naol goes to summer school every day to study math. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The lack of permanent residency status, along with high tuition fees for international students, puts a university degree outside the reach of many immigrants like Naol.

"It's not because of lack of aspiration or hard work on his [Naol's] part," said Carpenter. "Universities can play a role in addressing that if they have the will to do so."

Carpenter praised York for being the first Canadian university to offer this chance to young immigrants.

'Part of me wants to go, part of me can't go'

Naol is excited about the prospect of moving to Toronto but he's also worried about what would happen to his mother and younger brother.

While his mother is taking English classes five days a week, Naol still often acts as her translator.

"To be honest, part of me wants to go, part of me can't go because I live with my mom and I'm the one who takes care of most of the things," he said. "If I go, it will be hard for her."

Carpenter said earning a university degree is Naol's best chance at getting a profession and moving away from low-paying jobs.

Ethiopia has cancelled his passport so he can't easily apply to a Canadian university as an international student, she said.

"It's really hard to have aspirations about what [Naol] wants to do with his life," she said. "The work permit he has does not allow him to study in this country as a Canadian resident."

Even if he can get over the lack of passport and establish some kind of status, she said, he would have to pay international student tuition fees which she described as "an exorbitant amount of money."

Student loan unavailable

Naol said his lack of papers also prevents him from getting a student loan to pay for tuition.

"Even if you were able to get into university without papers, you wouldn't be able to get loans and without loans, you wouldn't be able to get tuition," he said.

He plans to spend this summer in Edmonton studying hard at summer school. His job at Rogers Place is on hold for now.

If all goes well in summer school, he hopes to apply to York University next year.


Nola Keeler is an award-winning journalist who has worked with CBC in Whitehorse, Yukon and Edmonton since 2000. She has worked as a host, reporter, news reader and producer for CBC. Send story ideas to nola.keeler@cbc.ca.