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For the last few weeks in October, Ryerson University campus in Toronto was littered with two competing signs: one, black and white, telling students to vote against a tuition increase, and the other, bright yellow, telling students to vote for bringing refugee students to campus for a better life. Like so many campus posters, they were largely ignored, but now that the results are out, the Ryerson community is fired up on both campaigns.

From Nov. 1 to 4, a referendum was held on the campus to determine whether students would approve of a $4 increase to tuition, starting in September 2011.

The increase would support WUSC, the World University Service of Canada, and their Student Refugee Program, which allows for one refugee student to be brought to Canada as an undergraduate student at Ryerson each academic year. Of the more than 24,000 eligible student voters, only 10 per cent voted — 53 per cent voted in favour of the increase, 45 voted against it and two per cent declined to vote or spoiled.

Jacky Habib, a member of WUSC’s executive committee, helped organize the yes campaign. “It’s the only program that matches the resettlement of refugees with education,” she says. “It changes their entire life and more often than not, they turn out to be very successful and happy with their lives here in Canada.” In the past 30 years, WUSC’s refugee program has brought around 1,000 students to Canada to study at different universities. Forty-five to 50 Canadian campuses have passed similar referendums.

The ‘no’ campaign is launching an appeal to give students another choice

At Ryerson campus, however, the win isn’t a clean one. Karol Pawlina, a third-year biomedical engineering student, spearheaded the no campaign. “I’m trying to give students the right to choose who and what to donate to,” he says.

Pawlina says he’s not contesting the amount they want, but rather the planning behind the funding and the precedent is sets for students. “Do we want outside groups lobbying for tuition fee increases for us? Why shouldn’t UNICEF be allowed to add $4 to our tuition too?”

WUSC has been established at Ryerson for the past two years and in that time, they’ve brought two students to Canada. Gerard Byamungu was brought to Toronto from Kenya in August of last year to study in Ryerson’s arts department. “This is one of the smallest ways of showing the Ryerson community is concerned about global issues,” he says about the referendum passing. “It paid off. We’re really happy to see that.”

Katia Dmitrieva, a fellow Ryerson student, is no stranger to working with refugees — she spends her summers working on Kalandia Youth Media, a media arts program for Palestinian refugees during the summer. The children come from the Kalandia Refugee Camp, which is between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank.

“It’s absolutely unfair for students to have to pay for this organization to work,” she says. Dmitrieva was present at a brief presentation WUSC delivered at a Ryerson Students’ Union meeting three weeks before the referendum. “Only 10 per cent of the student body actually voted. Ninety per cent either didn’t know or didn’t have the time to vote.”

Dmitrieva also raises issues with the impression the yes campaign left. “They used this slogan of ‘$4 can save a life, vote yes online.’ It’s one refugee per year. That’s not changing the situation, that’s not attempting to change any world situation,” she says. “It’s such a band-aid solution to me.” Dmitrieva says that WUSC should focus their efforts on creating grassroots organizations and fundraising independently, outside of campuses.

WUSC refugees had few options before coming to Canada

“In Kenya as a refugee, you cannot afford education to begin with,” says Byamungu. “The situation is hostile. Education is not a priority.” Byamungu says that without the WUSC program at Ryerson, he would not have been able to escape the persecution he faced after Kenya’s 2007 election.

“I was beaten up,” he says. “I had many problems with police, I didn’t have papers. The situation is not guaranteed and anything can happen to you and you don’t have a lot of privileges. You may end up in [a] cage and no one will care because you are a refugee. WUSC came and gave me a chance.” The refugee program picks the highest academic achievers in developing countries and Byamungu was near the top of his class.

“Did [Byamungu] tell you that since he won the campaign, he’s coming into $25,000 that he would not have otherwise come into?” asks Pawlina. The financial breakdown of the program is $125,000 per refugee student. $45,000 is given for the first year of their undergraduate degree, then $25,000 for the second, $15,000 for the third and $10,000 for their fourth and final year.

Byamungu is in his second year at Ryerson, and now that the referendum has passed, he is now eligible to receive the third and fourth tiers of payment as a refugee student through WUSC. Pawlina calls it a conflict of interest; WUSC representatives call it support for a cause.

The shift in funding means WUSC turns to students to help fellow students

“They found funding for the last two years,” says Pawlina. “They can find their funding elsewhere.” Habib explains that while WUSC fundraised their money for the past two students brought over, the model was always intended to come to a referendum and get funding through a tuition hike. “I feel like [the no campaign] doesn’t have a clear understanding of what the program is and how the money would be used,” she says. “They emigrate and come as permanent residents. They will have access to a line of credit, OSAP, loans, scholarships.”

Without an opportunity with WUSC, many of these refugees have no other options when it comes to getting a post-secondary education. It is oftentimes unavailable in their home countries.

Dmitrieva, however, sees an entirely different issue with WUSC’s business model. She claims that the point of the program is to bring refugees to Canada with the intention of trying to get them to stay here instead of taking their education to better their home countries.

A ‘postcolonial perspective’

“Their main goal is not to bring a refugee here and load them up with goodies and send them back,” she says. “You’re taking this refugee, getting them to stay here for the rest of their life. It’s sort of this postcolonial perspective. It’s like the white man’s burden.”

Habib flatly denies that this is WUSC’s goal. “It’s entirely up to them whether they want to stay in the country,” she says. “We legitimately want to have discussions with students about the issue of refugee students not having access to education.” Byamungu, at least, doesn’t know if he will return to Kenya or not, but he says he misses his home.

Pawlina is currently in the process of filing an appeal of the referendum before the ten-day limitation for appeals expires. “If I lose, I’m done. They won fair and square,” he says. “If WUSC does this, it’s just a matter of time before another charity can do this.”

During the initial referendum, most students either didn’t care to vote or didn’t know. If Pawlina’s appeal works and another referendum is launched, the real fight may not be to get students to support WUSC or not, but it may be to get them to pay attention in the first place.

Scaachi Koul is a journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto, and an editorial intern at

Scaachi Koul

Scaachi Koul

Scaachi Koul is a writer and journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto. She’s a former blogger for Maclean’s and freelancer for Venture Publishing.