How a refugee earned her way out via a Canadian College Scholarship

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Ayan Abdi: How a refugee earned her way out via a Canadian College Scholarship
Ayan Abdi being accepted into the Canadian scholarship program (Nichole Sobecki / Washington Post)

Ayan Abdi is one of the 5,000 refugees at a Kenya camp striving for a scholarship and a new life in Canada. Since she was 2, Ayan had lived in the world’s largest refugee camp that spans across the red desert near the Somali border.

Located just a few miles away from the camp is a Canadian university foundation where Ayan is scheduled for an interview that could save her life. In the previous year, Ayan was one of the many students crammed into classrooms across the Dadaab refugee camp for a two-hour exam, the first step in seeking for perhaps the most generous scholarship anywhere.

The World University of Canada (WUSC) will be awarding 16 students with a tertiary education and a new life in a Canada – they will be presented with a citizenship and a chance to sponsor their families.

Now Ayan was one of the 29 finalists heading for the interview that would determine her future.

For many young, intelligent refugees like Ayan, the WUSC scholarship is the only ticket left to leave the camp. The Kenyan authorities were trying to shut down Dadaab which has been lodging the victims of Somalia’s endless war and hunger catastrophe for over a quarter century. In the United States, President Trump had ordered a temporary ban on accepting refugees; other countries across the globe were carrying out similar acts even though the number of refugees is currently at its highest in recorded history, having exceeded 22 million in 2017.

“It’s life or death” said Joseph Muta, a programme officer of the scholarship foundation in Dadaab. “That’s how it’s seen.”

“If I get out of here,” Ayan said under her breath, “I’m never coming back.”

For a long time, Ayan and her friend, Maryan had witnessed their friends disappear into marriage as they were married to older men involuntarily and dropout of school, in accordance with old Somali cultural traditions.

Ayan was 12 when she learned of the WUSC scholarship and it transformed her into someone whose grades were part of a grand escape strategy. She and Maryan taught themselves digital skills at the camp in a market stall called Bukhara Computer School, filled with old IBM desktops. In 2012, both girls received scholarships to attend top high schools located far away from the camp, with college-educated teachers and new textbooks. On their phones, they would search for: “Best Universities in Canada.”

The WUSC scholarship represented something different. It was about merit.

The day after the interview, Ayan returned to Hagadera Secondary School in the camp, where she teaches biology in a classroom filled with 21 boys and two girls in their mid-teens. The school was a reminder of all the limitations of Dadaab. The boys often disregarded female educators, and the Islamic clerics would shut down girls’ debate team, stating that it gave women the wrong idea. It was early June, and Ayan would have to wait about a month for the results even though the WUSC committee did not provide an exact release date of the outcome.

The number of female students’ dropout increases weekly, disappearing into marriage, often involuntarily. Ayan had attempted to come to terms with one of the girls’ mothers, who responded with an old Somali proverb:

“A woman should be at home or in the grave.”

In late June, Ayan applied for a temporary pass to leave the camp to visit her high school friends and was given a white piece for paper that granted her two weeks outside the camp. It was then Ayan received news in relation to the scholarship application, and realised that she had successfully earned her way out of the camp. The scholarship finalists had created a group on Whatsapp, where they shared rumors, news – anything in relation to the WUSC programme. Ayan’s phone rang and she saw a list on the Whatsapp group: “The Successful Candidates for 2018 WUSC scholarships.” Her name was No.4. However, her friend, Maryan was not so luckily.

The girls would have another year together. Ayan would be applying to Canadian universities, practicing her English and familiarising herself with the Canadian culture; while Maryan would have one more chance to apply for the scholarship.

Source: Washington Post

Participate in the upcoming QSIC London seminar from 7-9 February 2018 as we talk about University Rankings and International Migrant Scholars.