Our History

The Beginning – a Moment of Inspiration

The Bishop’s / Champlain Refugee-Student Sponsorship Project began in as a moment of inspiration in Spring 1992.  At that time, refugee protection was something we read about in magazine articles and Amnesty International reports.  It was in fact the Amnesty International Club on our campus that played a crucial role in launching the project.  It hosted a public lecture by long time Montreal refugee advocate Rivka Augenfeld.  Rivka brought a friend from Quebec Immigration with her, and together, they planted a seed, following Rivka’s impassioned talk:  we too could be involved in refugee protection in a very tangible way.  Canada had a private refugee sponsorship program and one of the organizations that did private sponsorship in Canada, World University Service of Canada (WUSC), actually focused on bringing refugee students from refugee camps to Canadian campuses to begin new lives.  We could do this too...and we did not have to wait.

Those on campus, a mixture of students from the Amnesty Club, faculty and staff, who were taken by this idea met one afternoon that spring to consider its feasibility.  We had only a vague idea of what sponsorship would cost or of how we would raise the money, but in what was truly a moment of inspiration, compelled by a few students who felt strongly the moral imperative not to turn away from the opportunity before us, we took a deep breath and made a decision.  It turned out to be life changing not only for the more than 35 refugee students we have sponsored over the last 23 years but for all those in our community who have been touched by the struggles, strength and resilience of those sponsored.

Our first student, a young woman from Rwanda, arrived the following August.  She was followed by students from Burma, Zaire (now the DRC), Burma, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burundi, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and more students from Rwanda.  Through them we grew from a position of ignorance about the world to deeper understanding of a variety of country situations that create forced displacement and an appreciation of the suffering of the displaced.  These situations began to touch us personally.  In 1994 when genocide enveloped Rwanda, we held a special service for our first sponsored student’s family members killed during those dreadful months and waited apprehensively with her for news of those who had escaped.  Students from Sierra Leone and Liberia shared with our campus personal views regarding the civil wars in those countries. Others, from Burundi and Sudan, described conditions of life for youth in refugee camps where people live in situations of protracted homelessness for years on end.  We heard stories of escape, flight, separation from loved ones and stories of survival and determination to overcome incredible odds, to seek education and begin anew. 

Challenges, Opportunities and Landmarks

Twenty three years of sponsorship have also brought challenges, which we prefer to consider opportunities.  For example, in 1997, we were able to help our sponsored student bring her five year old child to Canada.  We shared some of the challenges of creating a home for a single parent and child, of assisting with integration.  Today, that child is a university student in good standing at a Canadian university.

In 2004 one of our sponsored students arrived with a calcified left lung, the result of tuberculosis, a condition that required emergency surgery (and removal of the lung) and that would have killed him had he remained in a refugee camp in Africa.  Members of the committee willingly made trips to the Montreal hospital where the surgery was performed and attend to his needs during his recovery.  He became a very successful student and today, a graduate of Bishop’s, is employed by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
To meet the needs of our sponsored students, we needed continued interest from Bishops and Champlain students and continued support from the University and College.  From the early years of the project, Bishop’s had contributed a room in residence and a meal plan while Champlain had contributed a room in residence for our students’ first year in Canada.  Both had waived student fees during this first year as well.  In 1999 Bishop’s extended its support by agreeing to waive tuition for sponsored students during the first term of their second year, and in 2005 Champlain extended its support by agreeing to donate a second year in residence for each sponsored student.  The project would not be possible without these contributions.

Fundraising over the years

The need to raise funds to support our students has also brought challenges and opportunities. In that first year of the project, our funds were meagre.  Institutional support in kind bolstered by a substantial donation from Caritas in Sherbrooke encouraged us to carry on.  Car washes, bake sales and even a jelly bean counting contest, added to a referendum levying a $4.00 donation per year from each Bishop’s student, enabled us to cover basic costs.  However, it did not cover the roughly $2,300 “transportation loan” for airfare that the Canadian government requires resettled refugees to repay.  We were troubled by the anxiety and hardship this debt imposed on our sponsored students.

We started a fall raffle that over time became a way to sensitize (and recruit) new students and faculty as well as to raise a small amount of the roughly $18,000 per student cost.  The raffle also engaged many businesses in our community that generously agreed to donate ( prizes for the raffle.  In 1997, knowing that costs were continuing to go up, we approached the Bishop’s student body a second time, asking for an increase in the student levy from $4 to $5 per year.  The referendum was successful and today is a key reliable source of revenue for the project. In 1998 we held our first used book sale on campus.  In time it grew and moved to a local church hall.  With books generously donated by community members, it continues to bring in $4-5000 each year. Then in 1999, we held our first yard/ ARENA sale, and it too has grown into our annual “hockey arena sale”, netting about $10,000 each spring, again with donations from our community. Over the years, many generous individuals on our campus have also donated to the project.

Some Landmarks

The increased revenues from these sources, along with increased institutional support and growing student interest enabled the project in 2000 to begin sponsoring two students for the first time.  In 2010 and 2011, additional support from groups in the community enabled us to sponsor three students.  While it is only exceptional circumstances that made these sponsorships possible, the commitment to sponsoring two students a year is now firmly established.

In 2002, one of our sponsored students won the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec’s Award and in 2005 another became a national Millennium Scholar, winning one of the prized five year national Millenium scholarships.  Some of our students have gone on to complete graduate studies.  Others have begun careers, married and started their own families.  A number have initiated or are engaged in projects to assist people in their countries of origin.  When we consider the journey these students have made from what seemed to be impossible refugee situations, to our campus and out into the world, we are awed by their success.

Learning to be advocates

As our project has matured, we have become increasingly aware of our role in fostering some important values in our community:

  • Engagement in and responsibility for refugee protection;
  • Openness and inclusiveness in welcoming and integrating newcomers into our society;
  • Self-education regarding conflicts and crises that create displacement in the world.

In 2000 the project became a member of the Canadian Council for Refugees, Canada’s refugee advocacy organization.  Over the years, as members we have had the opportunity to attend national meetings, to be part of the CCR’s Overseas Protection and Sponsorship Working Group and to learn about the impacts of government policies on people burdened by family separation, transportation loan costs and slow processing of applications for asylum.  We have been touched in very concrete ways by the financial and emotional costs of family separations to some of our sponsored students and have felt keenly the unfairness of the requirement that refugees repay the government for their transportation to Canada.  We have met with our member of parliament to discuss these issues. Some of our sponsored students have participated in panels at national CCR Consultations at which they had the opportunity to describe conditions of life for youth in refugee camps.  

Student members of the Project Committee have also participated in World University Service of Canada leadership training weekends and attended the WUSC Annual General Meeting in Ottawa on a regular basis.  At the Annual General Assembly which took place in Ottawa November 5 – 7, 2010 our committee received two important People’s Choice awards:

Outstanding Contribution to the Student Refugee Program
This award honours a Local Committee who has demonstrated strong and consistent commitment to the Student Refugee Program.

Most Effective Fundraiser
This award recognizes a Local Committee for outstanding work in fundraising, including referendums, individual events, solicitation of in-kind donations, and so forth.

                

In October 2007, students and faculty on the Committee drafted a brief entitled The Imperative of our Time: To Build a Compassionate Society for the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences chaired by sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor.  Two members of our committee, formerly sponsored students, helped to present the brief when the Commission held a public hearing in Sherbrooke.  The process of writing the brief helped us to articulate the values that underpin our project.

In 2010, our greater understanding of concerns related to refugee resettlement and sponsorship moved us to draft our own code of ethics as a guide for new (and old) members in our efforts to meet the needs of our sponsored students.

All of these efforts have been rewarded by recognition on our campus, in our community and beyond.  In 2008, the Project was the recipient of the Nicole Fortin Prize, an award given by the  Fédération des enseignantes et des enseignants de cégep (FEC-CSQ). In 2008 one of our sponsored students, Gad Milambo was honoured along with Montreal refugee advocate Glynis Williams by being invited to give the Savitri Chattopadhyay Memorial Humanities Lecture at Champlain.

2013, Twenty one years on...

Recent years have brought new challenges.  Since 2008 the Bishop’s / Champlain Refugee-Student Sponsorship Project has had to find funding to pay a $2750 processing fee for each sponsored student that WUSC is charging sponsorship groups due to its loss of funding from CIDA. This fee is in addition to the cost of sponsorship and transportation loan which we feel a moral obligation to pay (approximately $18,000).   Given the more difficult economic times, our sponsored students, like all Canadian students, face more difficulties finding employment.  Their situations are aggravated by the reality that newcomers, however hardworking, sometimes face discrimination in the job market and that, unlike many students, our sponsored students have no family support to fall back on.  For each, “integration” is a long term project for which we feel some responsibility even when sponsorship ends.  Now, in our 21st year of sponsorship, we know that the hardships our students have faced as refugees do not miraculously end when they arrive on our shores.  Thus we continue to be awed and inspired by their determination to succeed, their strength and resilience, and by the ways in which they have enriched our lives and our society.