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Canadian universities offer refugees a fresh start

“In the last moments at the airport, I was afraid that the Turkish government would delay us,” Mr. Istefan said.

A former engineering student from Iraq who went to university in Mosul, Mr. Istefan left the city in 2007, a year short of his degree, pushed out by bombings and kidnappings.

His mother had extended family in Syria, and at the time the country had not yet become embroiled in the conflict that has since displaced millions.

While living in Aleppo, he met his wife, Talar. Their home, he now says ruefully, was located between the government and three armies. By 2012, the hopes of his earlier life had been reduced to one.

“You are just afraid, afraid, afraid. We just needed to be safe to think of what to do,” Mr. Istefan said.

The couple crossed the border into Turkey, where they lived in a refugee resettlement camp until Canada agreed to accept them.

At the end of August, they arrived in London, Ont., through a joint sponsorship between the government and King’s University College, an autonomous college affiliated with Western University.


The Istefan family is one of the first of many that will arrive here through private sponsorship groups on university campuses across the country. In Toronto alone, the city’s four universities now have 75 such groups between them.

Those who are going through the process of sponsorship say the experience is not without difficulties, adjustments and surprising discoveries, all hinting at what to expect once tens of thousands of refugees make Canada home in the new year.

All the challenges, however, can be overcome, they stress.

“Canada has the capacity to welcome refugees and we have done so in the past. If you are a university student or at a university, you are rather privileged. This is a simple way we can give back,” said David Sylvester, the president of King’s.

The first issue is housing. Mr. Istefan, his wife and two-year-old son, Zenos – in Greek, “gift of Zeus” – have been living on campus, sharing space with several other young and single refugees the school sponsored.

While everyone has made it work, it has sometimes been hard on a young family, Mr. Istefan said.

“They’re single guys, they want to play music, have friends over. They stay up all night,” Mr. Istefan said. Later this month, the family will be moving into their own apartment.

Another issue is making sure that refugees are prepared for what could await them here.

“There is nothing more moving than reading a family’s UNCHR application,” said Caroline Konrad, the director of Ryerson University’s Career Centre, who is part of a sponsorship group at the school.

“There’s a question on the refugee survey: Will you be prepared to clean toilets? It’s quite jarring to see individuals who just want to make a better life for themselves, answer ‘yes, absolutely, I have no problem with that,’” she said.

In spite of everyone’s efforts to ease the transition to life here, some of the parts of life left behind may be permanently lost.

Mr. Istefan, for example, is not sure he will ever be able to work as an engineer in Canada. He’s 37 and believes he needs to work to support his family, which won’t give him time to go back to school.

And right now, he doesn’t have the paperwork to get into a Canadian engineering program.

“I have to get a paper from the university in Mosul. I have to wait to see when I can go back, my city is under the control” of Islamic State, he said.

But what keeps him up at night is not his own family’s future. It’s the fate of the families who contact him through e-mail and social media asking him to help them make the same journey.

“They tell me the father died, their child died. I don’t know how to help them. How can I help them?”

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