Graduate of Laurier's student-funded scholarship program an 'ambassador for diversity'

Hiba El Miari was one of the first students sponsored through International Students Overcoming War, a scholarship initiative created and funded by Wilfrid Laurier University students.
Hiba El Miari was sponsored to study at Laurier by ISOW: International Students Overcoming War. The student-led, student funded organization provides scholarships and support to students from countries facing conflict. (Carmen Ponciano/CBC)

Wilfrid Laurier University has graduated the first cohort of students from its unconventional scholarship program: International Students Overcoming War (ISOW). 

It's opened up a world of opportunity for students like Hiba El Miari, who is graduating with a bachelor of science — a degree that would have been very difficult for her to earn as a third-generation Palestinian refugee in Lebanon.

"Palestinians cannot own a house, or a land, and education is very expensive."

It was experiences like hers that first inspired a group of Laurier students to establish International Students Overcoming War in 2014. Since then, the student-led, student-funded scholarship initiative has sponsored 16 students from countries experiencing conflict.

More than just a scholarship

Before she came to Canada, El Miari said she didn't know what to expect from her relationship with ISOW. It was only when she arrived that she found out the organization was made up entirely of fellow students. She says she quickly found friends among ISOW volunteers, and her fellow ISOW scholars.

"They were very understanding and very supportive, and they were the kind of people who are interested in learning about cultures and they're full of respect."

Part of ISOW's role at Laurier University is to engage the student body and promote intercultural awareness through events including cultural festivals.

El Miari said organizing and participating in those events showed her the value of experiential learning. Becoming an ambasador for her culture and seeing others learn through her lived experience has been empowering, she said.

"The biggest impact [ISOW] had on me was getting understanding of who I am as a person, or getting more attached to my identity."

'An ambassador for diversity'

At first, El Miari said she felt uncomfortable dealing with inquisitive classmates, as she often had to confront cultural stereotypes and misconceptions about Palestinians. But with time, she began to see the positive effects of sharing her life with others.

"Part of being in a diverse community is to be an ambassador for diversity, which means you need patience, and explaining for someone those differences with an open heart and open mind," she said.

El Miari found herself looking to connect with the larger Laurier community and wanting to give other students from similar cultural backgrounds the same opportunity to celebrate their identity. That is why, she said, she founded Laurier's Student Arab Association.

The club's events are frequented by Arab and non-Arab students, and, like ISOW, strive to incorporate international students into the university's social scene while introducing the school community to Arab culture, El Miari explained.

"This club is kind of like an outlet for [Arab students], and a way for them to grow and figure out their identity in a safe space that is a little bit wider than their comfort zone,"she said.

Empowering other students remains El Miari's driving force.

Now that she has her degree, she has plans to pursue her PhD and eventually establish a biology research centre in Lebanon, to create educational opportunities for other Lebanese and Palestinian students.