Kitchener-Waterloo

Student-funded scholarship helps Syrian student graduate from Wilfrid Laurier

Wilfrid Laurier University is handing out diplomas this week to four scholars who had the support of every single student on campus.

Mary Saleh graduates with help from Laurier's war-affected country scholarship

Mary Saleh (right) is a program co-ordinator at Reception House, a local organization assisting refugees in Waterloo region. She also founded and coaches soccer teams for newcomer girls. She crowdsourced funds to help create two teams for girls. She's shown here with some of those students in a photo used for her GoFundMe campaign. (GoFundMe)

Wilfrid Laurier University is handing out diplomas this week to four scholars who had the support of every single student on campus.

They are the first group of graduates from the university's International Students Overcoming War scholarship program.

The scholarship was founded in 2014 by a group of students who wanted to help their peers who wanted to study, but were in countries affected by war. They convinced the entire student body to provide $4 in student fees toward the cause.

This week, four students are graduating after receiving the scholarship. Among them is Mary Saleh, who has earned a Master of Arts in Film Studies and English.

Saleh came to Canada from Syria. Despite the war, she was able to complete her first degree in English literature, and play on the Syrian National Women's Soccer Team.

"We would never know when the war would end, but you cannot stop your life and sit at home. Everyday you would go with the intention of continuing your life, but you would never know what would happen," she said.

With her future in Syria uncertain, Saleh reached out to a number of organizations offering international scholarships.

Then, she was put in contact with Laurier's scholarship program.

She eventually came to Laurier, knowing very little about the university or the team of about two dozen students that sponsored her.

Now, Saleh is a program co-ordinator at Reception House, a local organization assisting refugees in Waterloo region.

She also founded and coaches soccer teams for newcomer girls.

Saleh said she wanted to empower other young newcomer girls through soccer so used crowdfunding to finance two teams.

"The idea was that sport is a universal language, and it's played an important role around the world to integrate newcomers to any new country." Saleh said.

Saleh said the girls' parents, mostly Syrian refugees, would otherwise have trouble navigating and financing athletic extra-curriculars for their daughters.

"When I talk to the mothers, we talk about how back home it used to be difficult for a girl to join a team and now the mothers are happy they can grant this experience for their girls," she said.

Saleh now hopes to become an ESL teacher, just like her dad.

'A great support system'

"Before I arrived in Canada, I didn't realize they would be helping us with so many different details, I thought they were only involved in paying the tuition fees and living expenses" Saleh said, adding the group of students in the program were very supportive and involved with the sponsored scholars. "They were a great support system."

International Students Overcoming War's faculty advisor, Gavin Brockett, says the impact on all the students involved is reciprocal.

The volunteers provide the scholars with a sense of community and support but also learn a lot from the scholar's perspectives and life experiences.

They "challenge our own students to think more broadly, and I think that they inevitably challenge stereotypes," he said.

Saleh says the group played a large part in encouraging her to get involved in her new community.

"Dr. Gavin and the students and the events they do helped a lot to break the ice and feel confident enough to initiate projects or approach stuff I wanted to do," she said.

Brockett says all ISOW students, both volunteers and scholars, are dedicated to improving their communities and facilitating intercultural awareness.

"They know they have a lot to offer, and they do so with relish and with real sincerity."

Graduations for the other three students continue this week. 

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