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Student refugee program looks to expand

Decision rests with referendum question in the Students' Union annual general election

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This year's Students' Union general election will include a referendum asking students to pay an additional three dollars per year to sponsor a second refugee student to get a University of Calgary degree.

Currently full-time U of C students pay two dollars a year to sponsor one refugee student through the Student Refugee Program of the World University Service of Canada.

The nationwide service has sponsored more than 1,000 students fleeing war or persecution in their home countries to study at Canadian post-secondary institutions.

SU operations and finance commissioner Lauren Webber, a member of the referendum committee, said she's hopeful it will pass.

"Students on campus are really into humanitarianism. People are giving here. I think it will work out for the best," said Webber.

Last year, Webber helped choose the student the university would sponsor.

"There were five applicants and we had to pick one. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. That's why I really hope we can bring two."

Co-chair Allison Bonang has been on the Student Refugee board for four years. She said older students are often chosen because once they turn 25-years-old they can no longer apply. Female applicants are almost always chosen because the cultural situation in their home countries makes it difficult for them to get an education.

The previous two sponsored students asked to remain anonymous, but were willing to share their stories.

Both left the Sudan to go to school in Kenya. Having completed their high school diplomas, they applied for WUSC sponsorship and were selected to take an English class to prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language.

One sponsored student explained that completing high school in Kenya meant doing so under harsh circumstances, but the opportunity to apply for this program was worth it.

While more than 130 students applied, only 25 received sponsorship.

"Those who did not make it, it was not because they did poorly in high school, but because they did not have that chance. There are many people who are hoping for this chance," said one of the students.

The sponsored students want to build a community of students with similar experiences.

"We find it hard living away from home," said one. "But it is part of life."

"If the number of people who live here increases, there won't be so many to miss," said the other.

Webber said sponsored students have been heavily involved on campus.

One such example is Floribert Kamabu, current vice-president of student services for the U of C's Graduate Students' Association and national alumni councillor to WUSC.

Kamabu said he's a living example that the SRP changes lives.

He was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but when the civil war broke out in 1996, found himself a refugee in Uganda. He was sponsored by B.C.'s Simon Fraser University and completed his undergraduate degree at the College of St. Boniface, Manitoba, where he started a local WUSC committee.

Kamabu said he believes the U of C can do more. He suggested that students who have been complaining about the two dollars they currently pay do not understand their money rescues other students from desperate situations in refugee camps.

"We are lacking. The University of Calgary is dragging its feet. We need to catch up with the other universities that are sponsoring two, three, four refugees a year," he said.

"When you go in the booth and vote, you have to remember this is a life-changing event. Think if it had been you needing to come to a better place."

Webber does not think students will object to the additional cost, pointing to a successful levy bid last year by NuTV.

Bonang said the biggest hurdle for the refugee board is raising student awareness.

"Usually when [students] know what their money is going to, they are willing to help," explained Bonang.

SU Human Rights advisor Robert Clegg, who administers the program, put the cost into perspective.

"It's such a small amount . . . it's less than the cost of a cup of coffee for a whole semester. It's definitely money well spent."

Exact budget costs are still being worked out.

The SRP levy is responsible for providing financial and social support for a minimum of 12 months from the time the student arrives on campus.

Sponsorship covers the cost of residence, tuition, food, clothing and books. Social support is also provided.

Webber said when refugees come to Calgary, they are completely empty handed.

After a year of sponsorship, students are expected to find a summer job and a house, and receive decreasing denominations each year for three years.

Not all of the students have finished their degrees. Webber said some sponsored students have had a problem with retention or suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"But the hope for their work in the future is really high," she said.

The campaign will run the last week in February. Voting will take place the first week in March.

For the referendum to pass, 10 per cent of the student populous must vote, and more than 50 per cent of voters must be in favour of the additional cost.

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