This past August, thousands of Saudi students living in Canada had their futures derailed when the Saudi government ordered them to leave Canada and suspended government-funded scholarships to Canadian schools. The measures are a result of a political feud between Canada and Saudi Arabia, sparked by a tweet from the Global Affairs Canada account calling for the ‘immediate release’ of Saudi human rights activist Samar Badawi.
In the month since the Saudi-Canadian tensions surfaced, Saudi students in Canada have been in a precarious financial and academic position. The Saudi government’s deadline for students to leave Canada passed on Aug. 31, and now it might not be safe for those still here to return due to fears of imprisonment. 20 students are now seeking asylum with the assistance of Montreal-based activist Omar Abdulaziz. The Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal has penned two statements on the matter—neither overly supportive, however—in accordance with the Saudi government’s exemption for certain medical students. Where the administration’s communications fall short, it is imperative that the McGill community at large does everything in its power to make Saudi students feel welcome on our campus.
Under Canadian law, Saudi students’ legal status has not changed: Their study permits remain valid, and they are free to stay in the country until these travel documents expire. However, cut off from their home country as well as their principal source of funds, these students are among McGill’s most vulnerable.
McGill prides itself on its international reputation. But, international students are just that—students, not unofficial ambassadors for their home country. Saudi students should not be expected to suffer the repercussions of a chill in Saudi-Canadian foreign relations. Although the 132 Saudi students enrolled at McGill at the start of the 201-18 academic year represent a tiny fraction of McGill’s 40,971 students, they were also the fifth largest international student cohort of that year. They are integral parts of the community, just as much as any other local or international student, and they should be treated as such. Now is an opportunity for McGill to set a precedent for their commitment to protecting all of its students.
There is only so much McGill can do to protect its international students; universities have limited clout on the international political stage. Nonetheless, McGill has a responsibility to protect Saudi students within the confines of its campus. The administration should extend its show of support beyond a written statement and actively demonstrate its commitment to their safety by endorsing services that are of practical use to them. These resources include safe and confidential support services, affordable housing, and minority advocacy organisations. It is also important that McGill make the academic transition of those students who do choose to leave Canada as straightforward as possible by providing easy access to advising assistance.
In addition, students can also support the Saudi members of our community on an individual level. Saudi students currently face not only the threat of arbitrary punishment at the hands of their own government, but also that of racism and Islamophobia within Canada. Adequately assisting Saudi students entails starting a conversation about how minorities are treated on campus and spreading awareness of the precarious situations our Saudi peers find themselves in. Students can also endorse relevant campus groups and resources such as the Arab Student Network, the Black Students’ Network, the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office (SEDE), and mental health services.
The McGill community should provide Saudi students with whatever resources they require. There may be nothing a university can do to mend an international dispute—but it should be there for its students in need.