“Where do you come from?”
In Toronto, one of the most diverse cities on Earth, you can hear this question hundreds of times on any given day. It slips almost casually from the lips of commuters, office workers, people waiting in grocery lines and bank queues, and (perhaps especially) students.
But for University College student John Biel it was a lifesaver.
Biel, 24, came to Canada in 2012 from what is now South Sudan through the Student Refugee Program within the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), and is studying genetics and economics.
Shy by nature, he remembers being overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people he met.
“Where I come from, you keep your stuff to yourself—especially men,” he explains. “When I arrived here, many people had never seen someone like me—my colour… and I’m very tall.” He grins. “They were curious, so they would come up and find out more about me. I think that made it easier for me—when someone would come up and talk, ask questions.”
It is still difficult for him to discuss his past, however. “I try to forget it,” he says simply. “South Sudan, where my family is from, is where the resources are, and the fighting is in there. I grew up in that situation.” He looks away momentarily. “I lost so many people in the war.”
In 2003, at the height of the ethnic violence, Biel’s family fled south to Kenya. Young John, age nine and the eldest of his nine siblings, was sent to school. When he was fourteen, however, his world fell apart again. “In 2008, my family went back to Sudan because there was a bit of peace. My mom told me, ‘If you are not [okay] to remain here, you can go back with us,’ and I told her, ‘No, I can manage it here.’
Wise beyond his years, Biel knew education was key to a better future for him. “My mum always taught us to maximize whatever opportunities you get. She worked so hard, but she never managed to go to university. I must say most of my inspiration comes from her.”
Biel heard about WUSC from a fellow student, and set his sights on applying. He studied hard, passed the WUSC interviews, and arrived in Canada in the fall of 2012.
Like most new students, Biel struggled with homesickness and culture shock at first, but like all of the WUSC students, his more urgent battles involved the emotional fallout of having lived through war and genocide.
Both WUSC volunteers and staff from the UC Registrar’s Office are on hand to provide support—financial, material, and emotional—and help students settle in. “When they come, most of them don’t talk,” says Biel, who now mentors two recent arrivals himself. “It’s so hard for them to open up. It takes a lot of time. Most people who went through that situation—they just want to forget. And if anything comes up to remind them, they just shut it off. They either avoid it or just keep quiet about it.”
“But the people [at WUSC and UC] are very supportive,” says Biel. “I can share with them when I feel like I want to talk to someone… They make it [easier] for me.”
He worries about his family back in Sudan, where the fighting continues. “Most of the schools are closed, and there’s nothing for [my siblings] to do all day. When they’re in that environment, anyone can exploit them. They can be recruited.
“There are many [former] child soldiers here in Canada,” he says. “Many are now lawyers, doctors. And if there is peace in Sudan, those people can come home.”
Biel, too, considers returning to Sudan one day and helping rebuild the country. “I think people will need skills in development, and economics has some models they could use to try to rebuild the economy.”
Like Biel, Stella Mona, now in her mid-30s, fled Sudan with her family as a child. “I left when I was five years old, with my three sisters. We lived in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. Most of my [young] life was spent there.”
Established in 1991 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the camp provides education for refugee children, and Mona and her sisters were enrolled. After high school, Mona began teaching in one of the camp’s primary schools, and supported herself and her sisters on her meagre salary of 3000 Kenyan shillings (roughly $50) a month, plus basic foodstuffs supplied by the UN. “That’s all we survived on,” she recalls. “It wasn’t easy.”
She, too, heard about WUSC from a fellow refugee. “I was enrolled in an English course, and they encouraged me to apply.”
She arrived in Canada in 2003, when she was 21, and the rest of her family followed sporadically. “My older sister came [to Canada] with WUSC too. She’s living in Alberta, and my other sister is in the US. We reunited with my parents, and they’re in the US too.
“We are scattered all over. That’s what being a refugee does. You can’t plan. You just go wherever you think you’ll be safe.”
She enrolled in gender studies at UC, and remembers the unflagging support she received as she acclimated to life in Canada. “I was linked to the WUSC team at UC, who made sure I had everything I needed, that I had a place to stay. I had financial support for my education, and people who were always there whenever I needed anything—emotional, finances, pointing me to the right resources, so I could succeed. Otherwise I would have fallen through the cracks.”
“I immediately linked with my community here, too,” says Mona, referring to Toronto’s small South Sudanese population. “That’s a place I go back to when I need to see people from home. And I can eat South Sudanese food made by someone else.” She laughs. “I cook, but it’s different when someone else cooks it!”
She is currently back at U of T doing a master’s degree in social work, and like Biel, considers one day returning to Sudan to apply what she has learned here. “Things are not good there yet. Sometimes I think I should go back and change things, and other times I think that it will take years before it changes. The conditions have to be suitable for someone to thrive.
“I’m interested in post-traumatic stress disorder within refugee populations, people who have witnessed violence and struggle with the aftermath of war. With help, you can participate in the community. If I ever get an opportunity to go back to Sudan, I would like to focus on addressing trauma in a meaningful way.
“There’s always hope. I’ve been through it, and it’s a struggle integrating and getting the things that you need… But if you get the proper support, then you’re most likely going to come out of the situation.
“I’m grateful for the support I’ve had, for the people who have put money into this whole process [WUSC]. I think it gives people who are hopeless the opportunity to become useful, beneficial participants.
“As refugees, we had to depend on handouts, but now…” Here she pauses and fights back tears. “Now I have reclaimed the right to contribute.”