Universities across this country including right here in Ottawa are scrambling to respond to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria. 

For some Syrian refugees now, Canadian universities have been their ticket out; a chance at an education and better life.

2 years ago, 24-year-old David Kenyi could never have imagined his life right now, living in Ottawa, studying at Carleton University. 

‘For me to come here means a lot to me and my family,’ says the native of South Sudan.  

Two years ago, Kenyi was living in a refugee camp in Kenya, after fleeing civil unrest in his own country.  He had spent 12 years in the camp.  Kenyi heard about the student refugee program through the World University Service of Canada or WUSC and landed at Carleton to study statistics.

‘The program here is really good for youth,’ says Kenyi, ‘to give them the opportunities to have a good life in the future.’

The program at Carleton University has also just sponsored two students from Syria, and will probably add a third in January. Mohammed Rabie is one of them. He arrived a month ago from a camp in Jordan, where he had spent the last two years.  Rabie says the student refugee program was his lifeline.

‘That was the only boat that could take me out of the water,’ says the young, articulate man, ‘and save me, in a way. It provided a future for me.’

The refugee crisis in Syria has prompted an international response that is reverberating through universities across this country. 

‘There has been a tremendous outpouring of interest to bring more student refugees to Canada, says Chris Eaton, the Executive Director of WUSC.

Eaton says this year, WUSC has brought in 86 students from refugee camps in Malawi, Kenya, and Syria, sponsored by 65 student groups across country. The student groups provide sponsorship support needed for those students that WUSC helps to identify and bring to Canada. Eaton explains that the program is unique in Canada and perhaps the world;  it is actually a "re-settlement" program as well so refugee students who are studying here are also working towards becoming Canadian citizens.

Efrem Berhe works with Carleton's WUSC committee to sponsor refugee students and knows firsthand how important that is.  He lived in a refugee camp in Sudan.

‘This is a life changing experience,’ he says, ‘not only are they being offered to come here to study but well supported here as well.’

Carleton University was the first campus in Canada to sign on to the student refugee program through WUSC.  That was in 1978.  The University of Ottawa was on board shortly after that.  Since then, both campuses have sponsored dozens of student refugees.

But sponsoring these students is expensive:  between $25 to $30-thousand dollars a year, paid for through student fees and fundraising.

‘We support their tuition waiver, their housing, food, everything that will start their new life in Canada,’ says Justin Whitaker, with uOttawa’s local WUSC committee.

Algonquin College today pledged up to $50-thousand dollars to cover the tuition of ten Syrian refugees.