Mount Saint Vincent hosts first student refugee

Kenya refugee lived in camp for 18 years

When Halima Abdille learned she would be moving to Halifax, her greatest fear was the cold Canadian climate her friends and family warned her about.  But as with many aspects of life in Canada, Abdille is adjusting to the weather and even in the chill of November, she braves the streets in gold-coloured sandals.

Abdille is the first refugee to attend Mount Saint Vincent University. The 21-year-old biology and chemistry major arrived in Halifax in late August after the World University Service of Canada’s student refugee program approved her application.  

WUSC is a development agency that promotes global education and training. Its student refugee program helps students threatened by war and persecution move to Canada to complete post-secondary studies, and typically, apply for Canadian citizenship.

Each year, WUSC brings about 50 refugee students to universities across Canada.

Life in a refugee camp

Before moving to Canada, Abdille lived in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Dadaab had been her home since 1991, when Abdille and her family left Somalia because of civil war.

Abdille’s speech slows and her voice lowers when she talks about the refugee camp that was her home for nearly 18 years. She describes the camp, which housed 200,000 refugees from seven different ethnic groups, as a rough place for a child to grow up. Girls had a particularly hard time.

“The life I led back home in Kenya, it was harsh. Others can’t imagine what it’s like to be a refugee. You can be subjected to anything,” Abdille says.

“As a child, I don’t remember us ever having much fun, or ever playing games. It was even harder as a girl. The only thing that can change your life is education and as a girl it wasn’t easy to get educated in the camp.”

Abdille’s family insisted she get an education, and she worked hard at school, knowing it was her best chance of escaping her life in the Dadaab camp.

When she finished high school in 2006, she applied to the competitive WUSC student refugee program. She was notified the following year that her grades had qualified her.

From the summer of 2007 to July 2008, Abdille completed various written and health exams for WUSC, and in late August of this year, she left Kenya to study at MSVU.

Adjusting to Canadian culture

Abdille says the biggest challenge she has faced since arriving in Canada is adjusting to living in a predominantly white society.  

“I had a strange mentality about being with all these white people. It was a bit confusing and intimidating, because I didn’t know how to interact with white people. I was brought up in a black, African society,” Abdille says.

WUSC has local committees run mainly by university students and faculty, who help refugee students settle in their new homes, and offer support during their time at university.

Committees are responsible for picking up sponsor students from the airport when they arrive, getting them familiar with the university community, helping them sign up for courses and finding them places to stay during the holidays.

Rosanna Nicol, a university student and committee member in Halifax, says it is important for refugee students to have the support of alumni of the student refugee program, not just the support of committee members.

“There’s only so much we can do for sponsor students in a structured, defined way. We’re lucky in Halifax that the program is so established. There’s a group of alumni sponsor students who can advise the new students and share their own experiences,” Nicol says.

“The help of the alumni is important, because it’s hard to know from our own Canadian perspective what is going to be the hardest adjustment for a sponsor student.”

Committees are also in charge of fundraising to cover sponsor students’ expenses. In Abdille’s case, students at MSVU donated more than $10,000 to fund her exchange. The university president also waived the cost of tuition and residence.

Looking to the future

Now that she has been in Canada for a few months, Abdille is getting used to life here, and she says she is happy she came to MSVU.

“Life in Canada is easier than it was back home. I can concentrate on my school and not worry so much. And I can have fun with my friends – it’s easier here to be content.”

Abdille has no desire to move back to Kenya. When she completes her undergraduate degree, she wants to take a master’s degree. She misses her parents and four siblings, though, and would like to get them out of the Dadaab camp.

“There’s nothing to go back to in Kenya, so I don’t think I will ever go back.  If all goes well, I will support my family from here, and hopefully eventually pay for them to come to Canada. I just want to help them in any way possible,” Abdille says.

Abdille says her family and friends support her decision to stay in Canada after she graduates.

“My family and friends, they see this as the greatest opportunity. A good education is the only thing that can change your life in the camp– that’s the only hope there. I was given a rare opportunity, and my family, they are just so proud.” 



Feb. 6, 2009: Photo removed. Source had mistakenly granted publishing rights.

Comments on this story are now closed