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Commentary: McGill’s response to Syrian refugee crisis lacking

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Over four million refugees are facing unparalleled violence and uncertainty due to the Syian Civil War and other armed conflict in the Middle East. Additional resources must be deployed to alleviate suffering and provide opportunities for Syrian  students. McGill University and other higher learning institutions throughout the world are in a unique position to help and must consider diversifying their support for refugees.

In the midst of debates waging across the world in domestic legislatures and supranational organization assemblies, local communities can circumvent the politicization of refugees to enact considerable change. Now it is time for McGill to follow the example of other Canadian universities and make a concerted effort to provide quality education and safety for vulnerable populations. The administration should build on its longstanding history of global justice advocacy, as seen through establishments like the Institute for the Study of International Development and the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, to aid the Syrian people.

Scholarships and sponsorships through independent programs and university policy initiatives will create educational opportunities that extend past traditional asylum services. The Canadian government’s resettlement program supplies basic needs to refugees for up to a year; however, university settings provide a sense of community that allows people to be vibrant participants in society. Academic success empowers refugee students to forge new futures and improve conditions in their home countries. This branch of peace and hope also extends to their families, creating pathways out of poverty traps.

McGill can build upon programs and frameworks already established on campus and in Canada. The McGill Student Refugee Program (SRP), a student-led initiative to provide full financial aid for refugees during their first academic year supported by the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), is an integrated solution and deserves additional funding. By forging partnerships between private donors, local NGOs, student volunteers, and post-secondary education institutions, WUSC supplies a lifeline out of refugee camps. Organizer’s of McGill’s WUSC should be applauded for their decision made in late September to triple the number of refugee students it admits from two to six; however, there are still hundreds of qualified refugees waiting to be placed abroad. According to a comprehensive  study at the University of California Davis on Syrian university students in Jordan, “displacement of faculty and students is a generally unacknowledged and unmet component of the larger civilian Syrian humanitarian disaster.” Although well qualified, this ‘lost generation’ cannot continue their education due to lack of programing as well as logistical problems such as not having access to transcripts, test scores, or personal identification. WUSC has screened 19 of these accomplished Syrian students ready to arrive in Canada for Fall 2016, and are looking to add even more for the subsequent year. The small 50 cent fee paid by students each term to sustain the Student Refugee Program fund should be increased to meet heightened demand.

Academic success empowers refugee students to forge new futures and improve conditions in their home countries. This branch of peace and hope also extends to their families, creating pathways out of poverty traps.

Additionally, the McGill administrations response to the crisis severely lags behind other universities in Canada. The University of Alberta, which already sponsors students in partnership with WUSC, recently established an award that will cover tuition and living costs for 10 undergraduate or graduate Syrian refugee students. The University of Toronto also felt compelled to act, citing their duty to share responsibility and extend compassion. They expanded their “Scholars-At-Risk” program, which “offers support to academics and graduate students who have fled conditions of political oppression,” by increasing funds to one million dollars awarded over the next 10 years.

University of Toronto, York University, and Ontario College of Art and Design partnered to support Ryerson University’s “Lifeline Syria Challenge,” a program to sponsor 25 Syrian families (approximately 100 people) in Canada. McGill has the opportunity to join this coalition of schools while developing a program exclusively for refugees through the Scholarships and Student Aid Office.

The Syrian refugee crisis is a humanitarian catastrophe that will require global unity to solve. As shown, McGill has the collective power to implement real change at relatively low costs, and there is a moral imperative to join other Canadian universities as they stand in solidarity with Syrian students by providing critical education opportunities.

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