PEI

'Everybody was very shocked': UPEI's Saudi students packing up and heading home

UPEI's Saudi Arabian students have been told to head home by September, says the director of the university's international student office.

'There was some confusion and some sadness'

Like his colleagues across the country, Jerry Wang says he was shocked to learn Saudi students had been told to return home. (Karen Mair/CBC)

UPEI's Saudi Arabian students have been told by their government to head home by September, says the director of the university's international student office.

Like his colleagues across the country, Jerry Wang said he was shocked to learn that Saudi Arabian students studying on government scholarships in Canada had been told to return home.

The order was part of Saudi retaliation for comments by Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland about human rights in Saudi Arabia.

UPEI has not received any communication from the Saudi government, Wang said. Official notification went directly to the students. Wang said he has met with some of those students.

"The students are supposed to be packing up and getting ready to go home, back to Riyadh, in four weeks. So by September, everybody should be back home," he said.

Dozens of students visited the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau in Ottawa on Tuesday, seeking more information on the Saudi Kingdom's decision to withdraw all scholarship students from Canadian post-secondary institutions. (CBC News / Judy Trinh)

"Everybody was very shocked. There was some confusion and some sadness of course. Some of our students have children here in the school system and it's always sad when you have to pull them out and go through a very fast adaptation process."

A situation like this has never happened before, Wang said.

Academic futures uncertain

Most of the students are on government-sponsored scholarships, and really have no option but to leave.

Wang said the university is working to have the students' academic records in order, but it is not clear how many of their UPEI credits they will be able to transfer to wherever they continue their studies.

The university is also inquiring about the students' rental agreements, their children's vaccination records and transcripts for those taking summer courses.

Work with cultural bureau to plan future

The students should work with their academic advisors in the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau on how best to mitigate the impact and continue with their studies elsewhere, Wang said.

"We are advising the students to the best of our abilities."

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, left, told a news conference Monday that Canada stands by its comments about human rights in Saudi Arabia under King Salman, right. (Jimmy Jeong/Canadian Press, Alex Brandon/Associated Press )

A few of the students affected are in their fourth year or in graduate programs, Wang said.

The 49 Saudi students are part of a cohort of more than 1,100 foreign students at UPEI, and Wang said their departure will not have a large financial impact, but the school is upset by the loss of cultural diversity in the student body.

'Cultural, social adaptation'

"We're all really sad by the fact that we have to go through this," Wang said. 

"Every year we have an international night, we have a global village, where students from many countries, they showcase their cultures there ... we all have so fond memories of the global village…. They for sure will be missed a lot."

There is a lot of uncertainty right now amongst a lot of the students.— William McGuigan, UPEISU president

It will be particularly tough for those with children, Wang said.

"The cultural, social adaptation for the young kids — I mean, you grow up here in P.E.I., you are well-cultured here, then you have to pick up and leave, that's very hard."

'It's a very upsetting thing'

UPEI Student Union president William McGuigan said he takes summer courses with some of the Saudi students and the news has been difficult to handle.

"I was very concerned and very upset. It's a very upsetting thing. UPEI is such a tight-knit community and this is something that is going to have ripple effects on the entire campus and all of the students at UPEI."

'Their plan was to stay in Canada for the rest of their lives. Everything has just changed,' says UPEISU president William McGuigan. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

The student union has been in contact with the students, the university and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), but there are still a lot of unknowns, said McGuigan, who took over as president about three months ago.

'They don't know everything' yet

"There is a lot of uncertainty right now amongst a lot of the students," McGuigan said.

Their plan was to stay in Canada for the rest of their lives. — William McGuigan, UPEISU president

"They don't know everything at this point in time, from what I understand. They said they'd keep us up to date when they know."

As this order affects Saudi students across the country, McGuigan said the CASA will monitor the situation and report back to member bodies if they can help in some way.

Some planned to stay for life

"The UPEI Student Union is going to support the students in any way we can," he said.

Some of the students were building a new life in Canada, which makes the government order even more concerning, McGuigan said.

"These are friends that I've made, and now they just have to go back and their plan was to stay in Canada for the rest of their lives. Everything has just changed."

A representative of Holland College said there are no students from Saudi Arabia attending there.

More P.E.I. news

With files from Island Morning

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.