The Current

After coming to Canada as refugees, this high schooler says her mom's hard work inspired her to excel

Ummalhair Owolewa came to Canada four years ago as a refugee. Now she’s graduating with a 92 per cent average, and has dreams of becoming a physician.

Ummalhair Owolewa's family came to Canada four years ago as refugees

Ummalhair Owolewa is graduating from high school with a 92 per cent grade average, and the goal of becoming a physician. (Submitted by Ummalhair Owolewa)

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After coming to Canada as refugees in 2017, Ummalhair Owolewa took charge of caring for her younger brother and sister, while her mom was working long hours to make a life for them.

"She was working two jobs, like just trying to provide for us, and make sure that we have enough money," said Ummalhair, 17, who moved to Canada from Nigeria with her mother Bolacito Owolewa, brother Adnan, and sister Mecca.

When her mom worked early mornings, Ummalhair got her siblings out of bed, fed, and brought them to school. She then went to her own high school, before coming back to bring them home. Then she cooked and cleaned in the evening, so her mom wouldn't have to face that when she came home from work.

"I just felt like it was, like, my part, to just take care of my siblings," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

From left to right: Adnan Owolewa, his mother Bolacito, and sisters Mecca and Ummalhair Owolewa. The family moved to Canada from Nigeria in 2017. (Submitted by Ummalhair Owolewa)

After arriving in Canada, the family lived in a series of shelters where conditions were sometimes difficult, with restricted access to shared cooking facilities and no internet to help with school work. At one point, they had to deal with a bed bug problem. 

Despite the challenges of starting a new life in a new country, Ummalhair graduates this year from Central Technical School in Toronto with a 92 per cent average. Throughout high school, Ummalhair wanted to help other newcomers, and share the hope she felt about her new life. She became a volunteer and peer leader at a school club that helps other newcomers to Canada find their feet. While living in a shelter, she also created an informal homework club for other children there. She has been accepted to study biology at Trent University in the fall, and won scholarships that will help her pursue her dream of becoming a physician.

Ummalhair said she was inspired by seeing her mom work so hard. 

"I just wanted to make her proud for sure, for her to not have, like, one more thing to worry about," she said.

Her mom Bolacito said Ummalhair has always been very responsible, and is a role model for her siblings.

"Ummalhair has really made me proud and I'm so proud to have her as my daughter. I'm happy. I'm really overwhelmed," she said.

"I'm really happy for her, she deserves it because she worked to get what she has."

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Long road to a new life

The Owolewa family first travelled to the U.S. in 2017, and then crossed into Canada at the Quebec border. Ummalhair said her parents were worried about their future in Nigeria, citing government corruption, and made the decision to come to Canada "to try and get a better life."

She was 13 at the time, and remembers being scared for her mom as they crossed the border and met police.

"It was just hard and scary seeing her being so vulnerable," she said.

Her father is still in Nigeria and has not been able to join them in Canada yet. Ummalhair talks to him regularly to "keep that connection strong," but still misses her friends and life back home.

Their life in Canada started out in Montreal, but not speaking French made school and finding work difficult. They later moved to Toronto, where they moved into shelters because of high housing costs. 

Keep going, because whatever happens, life isn't going to wait for you- Ummalhair Owolewa

During that time, Ummalhair started an informal club to care not just for her own siblings, but for all the children living at the Toronto shelter.

"At first it wasn't something serious. It was just like [me] and my siblings finding a place to do homework after school," she said.

But slowly other kids started to join them, doing homework together and rewarding themselves with a trip to a local park afterwards. Ummalhair welcomed others to join the group, including teenagers who could help the younger kids. 

"I just felt like it was a safe place for most of the children to come and ask for help, if they need help with their homework," she said.

Then they could all "go out and have fun and then come back safely," she said. 

While the homework club offered company in the evenings, Ummalhair went to a different school from her siblings during the day, and initially felt lonely. 

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That changed when she met other kids who had also come to Canada as refugees.

"They made my experience at Central Tech more meaningful," she said.

"It didn't feel like it was something that was hard. It felt like something like everyone else is going through because we were all sharing the same experience."

Her mom also trained and became a personal support worker during her time in Canada — and the family got their own place. 

"I look back and I think, yeah, definitely I've been through a lot, but I am extremely happy with what I have, what I've become," said Ummalhair.

Her academic advice to other students would be to "set goals, work hard and push through."

"Whenever you feel down or you feel exhausted, just take a break," she said.

"And then keep going, because whatever happens, life isn't going to wait for you."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Joana Draghici.

Hear full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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