Scholarship for students from war-affected countries sees first grads in Waterloo region
Wilfrid Laurier's International Students Overcoming War scholarship sees first grads this week
A group of students who left war-affected countries to study at a Waterloo Region university will graduate this week.
They came to the region through a program at Wilfrid Laurier University called International Students Overcoming War — a scholarship initiative and club founded and led by students in 2014.
In the past five years, ISOW has sponsored 16 international students from countries where educational opportunities are limited because of war.
This week, the team of about two dozen volunteers are celebrating the first group graduation of ISOW scholars.
Among them is Lubna Rahal, a Master of Computer Science candidate.
She had completed her first degree in Syria, just as the civil war began.
Rahal had tried to continue with her Master's degree at Damascus University, but moved back to her hometown when the capital became too dangerous, she said.
"Most of the professors pursued their PhDs outside of Syria and then returned," she explained. "After the war, most of them just left."
In 2017, Rahal decided to apply to Master's programs abroad and discovered the ISOW scholarship fund.
"Because of the ISOW scholarship, I was able to get this Masters degree which opened up...an internship at a research centre in Germany, which offered me a job when I graduated."
Students manage to get entire university on board
In 2013, a group of students was inspired to establish scholarships for students overcoming war after participating in a seminar on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Two years later, the entire Laurier student body voted to donate $4 as part of their tuition each term toward the scholarship fund.
"For Laurier students, ISOW shows them that they might feel like they're not making much of an impact, but they actually are," said ISOW spokesperson Hillary Winger.
When Rahal first arrived in Canada, she had no idea what to expect; she had never even heard of Wilfrid Laurier University before.
"I didn't find the cultural shock that I expected. It was really easy to adjust. Maybe because of a lot of help and support of the ISOW team," she said.
'It's easy to be cynical'
Gavin Brockett was the instructor teaching the course that inspired the original ISOW team, and he remains the organization's faculty advisor.
He says the club's involvement goes far beyond fundraising; volunteers offer support to the sponsored students and both the ISOW program and the students organize events on campus to raise inter-cultural awareness among their peers.
"In today's world, it's easy to be cynical that nothing one does is going to do much, and certainly one can't change the world. And yet, they see in this the opportunity to impact the individual lives of the scholars we sponsor and also the wider community," Brockett said.
Now, ISOW volunteers have tangible evidence of their impact. In addition to Rahal, there are three other students graduating this month. Mary Saleh, also from Syria, will be graduating with a Master of Arts in English and Film Studies. Hiba El Mairi is earning her Bachelor of Science, with dreams of pursuing a Master's degree in Biology.
Rahal's involvement in ISOW events helped her make connections within the Laurier community, she said.
"We had the opportunity to talk about Syria, maybe made the image of Syrian people or what's really happening in Syria clearer most people," she said.
Although she is in Germany now, Rahal hopes to one day return to Laurier, perhaps as a professor, and reconnect with her ISOW friends.
"We had a great time together. Now, I really feel that I have a family in Canada."