Refugee program success shares his story

Thirty-nine-year-old Floribert Kamabu vividly remembers awaking from his first night’s sleep in his new home of Canada.

“When I woke up I thought I was dead because there were no gun shots in the night, there was no noise. It was so peaceful and quiet and I had a good meal before bed,” said Kamabu, a University of Calgary nursing graduate student.

In November 1999, Kamabu arrived in Canada, sponsored by the World University Service of Canada’s Student Refugee Program. His first night in the country was a world away from the refugee camp in Uganda he had previously called home.

“In the refugee camp there were no nights that could go by without hearing a gun being shot somewhere or some night noise. [In Canada] I experienced for the first time something you call a good night and a quiet night,” said Kamabu.

Through the SRP, post-secondary institutions commit to sponsoring a refugee and providing them with a minimum of one-year of education. Since 1978, more than 1,000 qualified men and women, including Kamabu, have resettled in Canada thanks to the program.

“The SRP is the only program in the world that combines refugee resettlement with post-secondary education,” explained Michelle Manks, program officer of the SRP at its headquarters in Ottawa.

In March, U of C students voted on a referendum in the Students’ Union general election to increase the levy students pay into the SRP by $1.25 for full-time students and $0.50 for part-time students. The passed levy means full-time students will now pay $2.25 per semester, while part-time students will pay $1.00 per semester into the SRP. Kamabu smiled as he revealed that, thanks to the passed referendum, a second student will soon be able to study in Calgary “away from fear, persecution, hunger, poverty, you name it.”

“Imagine living in a refugee camp, dreaming of the day you’ll be able to complete your education and provide for yourself and your family, and you’re told that you’re being sponsored by a school in Canada to do just that. That’s beautiful, that’s incredible,” said Dylan Jones, a U of C student and WUSC volunteer who was a spokesperson for the recent ‘Yes campaign’ encouraging students to support the SRP fee increase in the SU referendum.

It is expected that, beginning September 2011, the U of C will welcome two student refugees– a male and a female– every year and support them financially for four years.

As Jones explained, the amount of funding for the sponsored refugees decreases year to year– the first-year the funds are meant to pay for everything from a winter jacket to living expenses, while in the fourth less money is needed.

“We prioritize the majority of the funding into the first two years because this is the most challenging time for most students . . . by the time the third- and fourth-years arrive, sponsored students have had two years to adjust to all these new things,” said Jones.

For students like Kamabu, who’ve experienced the program first-hand, the SRP is more than a simple addition to students’ semester fees, it is a chance for refugees across the globe to be “reborn.”

“There is no one else who can tell the value of this program better than me because I’ve lived it, I’ve seen it working, I know where I was before, I know where this program brought me and I know that somebody else can get this same opportunity,” said Kamabu. “It’s big . . . I know it will definitely change somebody’s life forever. When you go through this program and are given this chance, it is like being born again.”

Kamabu’s own story of rebirth begins over a decade ago in central Africa. In 1994 Kamabu was enjoying life as a second-year medical student in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I was in med-school and doctors in Africa and everywhere in the world are respected, rich people. I was thinking about a life with a wife, a good job, a nice car, a nice house, that’s all I was dreaming about,” said the soft spoken Kamabu.

His dreams were shattered when civil war broke out, stealing the lives of family and friends.

“Imagine the whole of Canada going to stay in a town like Detroit or Seattle. It was a catastrophe,” he said, describing the mass exodus of citizens during the war. “I found myself fleeing my own country. I found myself in Uganda as a refugee.”

Kamabu settled in a refugee camp near Kampala, in western Uganda, where he was assigned a piece of land. With the help of other refugees, he grew his own food and spent half a year building a house.

“After six months I moved into my beautiful house that I still love up to today because that was home for me. You had to make everything from scratch,” said Kamabu, smiling as he showed a photo of the small hut. “You had to be very, very creative to live out there.”

With a growing garden and a finished house, Kamabu found himself bored. He began volunteering at a health centre located in the refugee camp. One of the most educated in the camp of millions, Kamabu found his skills were put to good use at the busy centre.

Kamabu spent almost two years in the refugee camp before learning that a WUSC representative was coming to interview for potential sponsorship to Canada. Seventy-two people, including Kamabu, were put on a list for possible sponsorship through WUSC and only five spots were available.

Kamabu managed to earn one of those spots, which took him to Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, but it wasn’t an easy procedure.

After being identified by WUSC as a possible candidate, a representative from Canada interviewed every eligible person.

From there, a precise set of interviews, skill and knowledge tests and intense medical check-ups took place. Kamabu, who now has a degree in nursing and is working on a masters of nursing, said this medical-check-up was extremely rigorous and unlike anything he has ever seen in his life.

While being interviewed by an immigration officer, Kamabu had to convince them that he would be successful in Canada.

see refugee student, page 9

“I had to prove to this immigration officer that, ‘yes I’m a refugee,’ that ‘yes I can be successful in this country’ and ‘yes I have the skills and knowledge to be successful in a Canadian university.’ How do you do that? It’s tough. But I did it.”

Kamabu says the entire process took over nine months. For refugees coming to Canada without the help of WUSC, the process can take up to five years.

The chance to leave the refugee camp and study in Canada was the opportunity of a life time for the med-student turned refugee.

“This program is a life-changing program. It makes the difference between life and death,” said Kamabu. “After I left the refugee camp it was attacked and many, many people died . . . It makes the difference between poverty and just living in acceptable conditions as a human being.”

The “life-changing program” which Kamabu speaks of is visible in over 50 post-secondary institutions across Canada. Last year WUSC campus groups collectively welcomed 66 sponsored student refugees to their campuses.

“This program is absolutely amazing in that we, as a student body, are able to contribute the most miniscule amount of money to literally change someone’s life,” said Jones.

Michelle Manks of WUSC Canada explained further.

“Everyone has the right to an education. Through small donations, Canadian students can provide bright and talented young persons, who are living in desperate and uncontrollable situations, with the opportunity to reach their potential,” said Manks.

Kamabu, who was initially sponsored by Simon Fraser University and later studied at the University of Ottawa before working as a nurse and coming to Calgary to do graduate work, said refugees need the chance the SRP provides them.

“These people have potential. All they need is a chance,” said Kamabu.

“Just a chance to come and further their studies and then they will come and show us what they’re made of.”

Kamabu remembers being both happy and worried as he boarded a plane headed for Canada. He was concerned about minute details like how he would fix his button if it fell off his shirt.

“There were so many things going through my head,” he said.

After a long flight he landed at the Vancouver International Airport on November 30, 1999, and was greeted by members of the local WUSC committee and his homestay family.

He adjusted to life in Canada, but not without some important milestones. His face lights up as he remembers eating a donut for the first time or the morning he tried yogurt.

“When I came I didn’t know how to use a microwave . . . some of us don’t even know how to use a flushing toilet,” he said.

Kamabu said refugees have to do a lot of adjusting to the culture and values of Canadians.

“Survival is what we do as refugees and we will do anything to survive.”

Adjusting to life in Canada, the dedicated student quickly became involved in WUSC at the Simon Fraser University campus.

A decade later, Kamabu is still involved with WUSC on a campus level. Over the years he’s studied at St. Boniface College, the University of Ottawa and he’s worked in public health. He sat on the WUSC board in Ottawa, WUSC committees at the school’s he’s studied at, and has delivered key-note speeches at campuses across the country.

He is currently completing a masters in Nursing at the U of C, while serving as Vice-President of the Graduate Students’ Association and playing a key role in the campus WUSC group.

According to Jones, Kamabu decided not to run for president of the GSA next year, so he can support the SRP in moving ahead with sponsoring two students per year.

Today, Kamabu considers Canada home and has used his time and money to sponsor 11 of his African relatives and bring them to Canada. He’s currently trying to sponsor a family of seven and looking for signatures to support his efforts.

Jones said Kamabu’s story teaches an important lesson about the idea of paying-it-forward.

“[Kamabu] was given a chance [and] since then he’s taken care of many people back in Africa, he gives back to the local, Calgary and U of C community, and he’s volunteering with WUSC to help give other deserving people the chance that he got,” explained Jones.

Kamabu said he doesn’t hesitate to offer his time and money to bring relatives to Canada.

“I don’t even think about it because I know the chance that I’ve been given.”

Kamabu, who keeps a photo of his first Canadian bed, the one that offered him “a good night and a quiet night rest,” can today go to bed knowing he is accomplishing his dreams and helping others achieve theirs.

“These people are going to be valued people in this society and when I see that I feel so happy. There’s joy for me to see these people thrive and attain these dreams they would have otherwise never dreamed.”