Mohammed Malek was two years old when he left Iraq in a sack on the back of a donkey.
Along with his family, the first-year nursing student was forced to leave his home country because of the fear of persecution due to his father’s Kurdish lineage.
“We had to cross the mountains into Iran because at the time, it was safer than being in Iraq,” he said.
Malek arrived in Canada as an asylum seeker and eventually a refugee. So, when he heard about a discussion at Ryerson about the global refugee crisis, he knew he had to attend.
“As soon as I saw ‘refugees’ and the names of the speakers who would come out, I just had to see what it was about,” he said.
The discussion was a part of a lunch and learn series hosted by Ryerson’s chapter of World University Service Canada (WUSC). The series focuses on the global refugee crisis and each session discusses a different subtopic, with this week narrowing in on Canada’s role in the refugee crisis.
Today, there are 65 million refugees in the world. From 2015 to 2017, more than 48,000 refugees entered Canada from Syria alone.
The event featured guest speakers from varying backgrounds who discussed their experiences migrating from their home countries and Canada’s role in not only welcoming refugees, but also integrating them into Canadian life.
The session covered other issues with Canadian policies that have made it difficult for asylum seekers to obtain refugee status. Prof. Idil Atak of Ryerson’s department of criminology presented Canada’s use of Designated Countries of Origin (DCO) and how it prevents certain people from finding safety in Canada.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen and witnessed under the previous Conservative government many of these policies that clearly show the aim to deter asylum seekers coming to Canada and claiming refugee status,” she said.
The DCO list outlines 35 countries that Canada considered safe for refugees. Applicants of Canadian refugee status from any DCO have less time to prepare their claims. In her presentation, Atak highlighted Mexico, Hungary and the Czech Republic on the list as being the main refugee-producing countries in Canada before the adoption of the policy in 2012.
Another country on the list is Norway, where Malek and his family ended up after leaving Iraq. Although the policy wasn’t adopted in 1994 when he applied for refugee status, his family’s claims were denied. Malek says he went nine years with no social insurance to work and no health card.
“Just because they made it official in 2012, doesn’t mean they weren’t practising these kinds of policies here in Canada before then,” he said.
According to Atak, policies like these often stem from a culture of suspicion cultivated through negative public policy. But there have been new programs and policies in place to help refugees seeking a permanent, safe home in Canada.
Christian Bambe was one of the speakers of the session and is part of the WUSC Student Refugee Program (SRP) at Ryerson. The program gives student refugees the opportunity to study at a Canadian institution and currently supports over 130 refugees, known as WUSC scholars. The SRP is in effect on 83 Canadian campuses and has been helping student refugees pursue a higher level of learning for almost 40 years.
According to the chair of Ryerson’s WUSC Adela Zyfi, many Ryerson students may not realize their own contributions to the program.
“Every undergrad student pays $4.50 as part of their tuition and this money goes towards supporting the WUSC scholars during their time at Ryerson throughout all four years of university,” she said.
“I think it’s really important to know that every student, consciously or subconsciously, is contributing to supporting refugee students at Ryerson.”
In addition to discussing Canada’s role in the global refugee crisis, Zyfi said it’s important to remember Ryerson and groups like WUSC are also making contributions through raising awareness with events like these. Those who attended the event were asked to fill out a brief survey of what the focus of the next session should be, surrounding the topic of the refugee crisis. The final instalment of the lunch and learn series will be on March 15 at POD250.