Universities Helping Refugees Reach the Potential They See For Themselves and Their Families

Over the past few months, we’ve welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada and Ontario’s universities are playing a pivotal role by creating pathways of opportunity and the chance for new beginnings for this group, as they have for asylum seekers from many other jurisdictions before them.

Refugees come from dangerous places, often fleeing war and poverty, with many among them hoping to go to university. In many cases refugees arrive with a great diversity of skills, experience and specializations. They are doctors, dentists, engineers, teachers, lawyers or IT and finance specialists hoping to rebuild the careers they had in their home countries before they found themselves forced to leave due to persecution, civil unrest or war.

There are remarkable benefits when access to postsecondary education for these vulnerable groups is made easier. It provides them with an opportunity to fulfil their personal aspirations, achieve financial independence, build social networks and to contribute to the economy, academia, science, culture, the arts and our communities in empowering ways.

And Ontario and Canada are stronger because of their contributions.

Silhouettes of people walking on crosswalk in busy city

But the role of our universities also goes much further than providing student refugees with an opportunity to pursue higher education. Whether it’s through building supports for student volunteer teams, offering enhanced tuition, scholarship and bursary programs for refugee students, or by creating supports for sponsored students to adapt and succeed in their new environment, our institutions have taken a leadership role in countless initiatives to support those affected.

Here are just a few other examples of the tremendous work being done across the province by our passionate students, faculty, staff:

  • Ryerson University launched, and OCAD University, the University of Toronto and York University subsequently partnered in the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge to facilitate private sponsorships, raise funds and engage volunteers in a co-ordinated effort to assist Syrian refugees. Hundreds of student volunteers are also involved, looking at possible housing options for the refugees and helping to update a refugee settlement handbook. To date more than 80 refugee sponsorship teams have been formed through this initiative.
  • Dozens of other Ontario universities and colleges are also working with World University Service of Canada to support and sponsor student refugees.
  • Meanwhile, the University of Ottawa responded to the Syrian refugee crisis with new scholarships and supports to help refugees. For example, a Faculty of Law Refugee Sponsorship Support Program, that matches lawyers giving free advice with Canadians who are seeking help with the legal and procedural challenges involved in sponsoring refugees. As of January, 900 lawyers and students have been trained and have begun work with 700 sponsorship groups.
  • Three Brock University students walked from the St. Catharines campus to Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Nov. 26, 2015 to help put the plight of Syrian refugees into perspective. The initiative helped to raise awareness and funds in support of refugees.
  • To support English-language learning for Syrian refugees arriving in our community, Renison University College, an affiliate of the University of Waterloo, established a fund which will cover tuition for individuals taking courses through their English Language Institute. This fund helps provide refugees with the language skills they need for their new life in Canada.
  • The Department of Student Learning and Transitions at Nipissing University in North Bay took part in the national 25,000 Tuques Project aimed at welcoming each of the 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada in a truly Canadian way; by giving them a handmade tuque.
  • In addition, York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies works with networks of refugee researchers across Canada and globally to promote innovative research, education and policy engagement around the global refugee crisis, including the Syria refugee experience in Canada. The centre co-ordinates a number of research and educational projects in relation to the global refugee crisis, most recently through the Borderless Education for Refugees Program, which makes educational programs available where refugees need them.

These university-led initiatives not only offer students the chance to help but they also provide them with an enormous opportunity for new experiential learning opportunities. It also provides diverse opportunities for students across disciplines to become change makers. Their impact is felt in everything from fundraising, to settlement supports that are enlisting the aid of students in nursing for health issues, law students to help with processes, finance students for assistance in setting up banking, and translation students for assistance in basic language skills.

Our universities will continue to respond to the educational needs of refugees, recognizing that through every effort – no matter how big or how small – we are working together to make a difference and help improve lives. By making it easier for refugees who come to this country in search of new beginnings, to access loans or grants and to pursue a university education, we are helping people realize their hopes and dreams and most importantly to reach the potential they see for themselves, their families and their futures.

David Lindsay


David Lindsay
President and CEO
Council of Ontario Universities