Stories Without Borders: Part One

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In collaboration with the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), the Martlet presents Stories Without Borders, a new feature telling the stories of students who have come to UVic through the Student Refugee Program (SRP). By sharing the stories of these students, we hope to dispel myths about newcomers and the newcomer experience. In the interest of protecting these students and their families, the students’ names have been changed.

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

Could you introduce yourself?

Thank you so much. My name is Arthur and [I am] from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I am a student at UVic and I study social work. I moved to Victoria recently, in July, and this is my first semester at UVic.

What are you studying at UVic?

Social work.

Would you like to share why you chose to study this subject?

Actually, I have a lot of reasons, but my choice of this program is related to my past. One, I was motivated since I was in my home country . . . I lived in a country where I noticed a lot of social policies and things that I wished could change, but I couldn’t see any way of changing things. And I also saw, in my country, leaders focused on power and ruling and money, but not on issues concerning the society. This has affected my personal life . . . my family, my friends, and I wished that things would change.

Secondly, I have seen people suffering. People [who] need help and people facing a lot of challenges that couldn’t happen to any human being. And then I had a question of “why are people suffering? Is it because they are made to suffer, or is there something wrong?” And then I discovered that people are not meant to suffer, but there is an error somewhere. There are no people around to help; there are no people with compassion and [who] feel that everyone should be in a better life.

So I [wanted to] know if really in life there are people who can help. Do they exist? Where? I discovered that yes, there are people who are concerned about how the community develops and what people face [and want] to help those in need, and I [learned] that these people are social workers. And I said: “One day in my life, I will be a social worker. I will be someone who can inspire others to live. I will be someone who can change someone else’s life, at least in the village.”

One thing that might be difficult for people to understand, [is that] I have been a refugee in my country for almost ten years. It’s difficult to understand a person being a refugee in his country. We know that a refugee is someone who has left his country to seek protection or peace in another country. But when I say I have been a refugee in my own country for ten years, everyone has questions. I was born in a southern province, but since I’ve grown, I’ve never seen my parents in peace, my family in peace. We had to move from a province to another one for peace in our country. Why? Because there is no peace at all in the country. And everywhere we’ve [gone], we’ve been refugees, seeking peace, seeking freedom, seeking a home to stay in and go to school. But this couldn’t happen. And I was like, “Why can’t the government change this? Why can’t leaders work on and think of changing this?” However, I could see people like Red Cross International, UNHCR (United Nations High Commission of Refugees) going around to support kids . . . and all of these people are not leaders [or] governors, but they are people who feel like everyone should be living a better life. And I was inspired to know what makes these people go around the world and do this.

I left my country to Malawi where I’ve been a refugee since 2008. I’ve been in a refugee camp where I was like “no, this is not life.” I am not sure if everyone knows what a refugee camp is about, but in Malawi, in the refugee camp, all I could see around were Red Cross [and] the UNCHR; humanitarian people who came to seek or to find those who need help. And I was like, “maybe being in the refugee camp, it was just to motivate my cause of becoming a social worker. But how can I get into this? I don’t have any chance of education anymore; I left my country and dropped my education and everything.”

Good enough, along came WUSC with the SRP (Student Refugee Program), a program that sponsors students to go to Canada for their studies, and I had to go through the application and the requirements. I qualified for the scholarship, and I remember the first day I received my letter from the local committee — immediately, I went to the Internet to thank them, that I am coming. And they didn’t ask me questions of what I wanted to study. I had to tell them, “make sure that I am coming and I am going to the school of social work.” When I reached Canada, they asked me the same question: why would I like to study social work? And I had to explain my past. So in brief, my past has encouraged me, has inspired me to study social work. And I know it’s difficult, but at least everyone living a better life should know that people are suffering who need help, and it’s their right to live in a better life [too].

Where is your country of origin?

The Democratic Republic of Congo.

How would you to respond to any misunderstandings or misconceptions about your country of origin? What truths would you want the UVic student body to know about your country of origin?

I heard one, and the explanation might be true, but I wish it could change. People think that my country is a poor country. Why? It’s because all we see on the internet, on the news . . . are people suffering, people dying with malaria, with disease. I have never seen any positive thing on the Internet about my country. But still, if we go into books, we will discover that my country is one of the best countries in the world. But people don’t discuss this. Why? Of course, we have a very not-good leadership in place for now, and the good things of my country are not known . . . But anyone who has a chance to talk about [my country believes] that my country is a poor country. This is not true. I wish that people could define the poverty of my country . . . I don’t agree that it’s the population. We have a very great population of people who want to change.

I still believe in a change for my country.

Secondly, we have potential things and enough to develop my country, but I think the poverty of my country is the leadership. We have a poor leadership. So I would respond that anyone referring to my country as a poor country should determine and define that it’s not poor in things, in the population, but we are still running into a poor leadership. And I wonder why international leaders also agree that my country is one of the poorest countries in Africa — when they go through the standards of the countries to be a “rich” country, I know that they see our education, they see our nutrition and all of these things — yes, I agree that the population does not meet all of these standards. But I do not feel good that we are being referred to as a poor country. Because it is not a poor country. And I still believe in a change for my country.

What are two positive experiences you’ve had in coming to UVic as a student?

One is that, my past [classes] that I did in Malawi, which were English, could not be counted at my previous university in Canada — it was more than 30 credits in my program. And [I thought], “honestly, I did all of these courses and it’s just for nothing?” One positive thing that I liked was when I submitted [my transcript] to UVic, I had a call from the program advisor; she assured me that my transcript would be accepted at UVic. When I reached UVic, she asked for an appointment with me to go through my transcript and it’s like they really want us to develop and want us to achieve our goals. So I’m more so addressing the administration — I was motivated right in the first week I was admitted to the university because I met with administration to encourage me. They encouraged me by showing me the network support I have with the university so that I can achieve my goals. So that is what I liked so much: they really want one to reach his goals or her goals.

The second thing [is that] around the campus, there are enough materials for one to reach his goals, like academic support, [and] a lot of clubs to make friends. Maybe some people will not agree with me, but I have this experience of being there [at another Canadian University prior to UVic] for one year at that campus, and now [I’ve spent] one month at this campus — I honestly can say that I have a lot of friends here, more than I did after one year in  [the other school]. At this campus . . . I have met so many wonderful people, people who can start talking to you, listen to you, share their ideas, want to listen and know what you want. I really appreciate that.

I also want to mention about the WUSC local committee at UVic — they are a positive thing to me because, so far, they are pushing me to know what I want at the campus. And it’s really a positive thing for me as well.    

What are two pieces of advice you would give to newcomers coming to UVic to study?

One is to know that all materials that are available for us. And we shouldn’t block ourselves [from] getting those advantages. Why am I saying this? People won’t always come out to find you, but if you walk in, they are there for you and you get help. So I would advise newcomers to know that at UVic, you have a very nice team [and] network, [so] don’t be shy, don’t be afraid, don’t stress yourself. Just go find help and I’m very sure that everyone will get what they want.

The second advice for newcomers to know that there is always time to discover and to understand and see whatever they want. It might take time for them to understand the campus policies, the UVic stance of education; it can take time, but still it’s not very difficult — it’s easy. I’m mostly saying this for people coming from my side of the continent, from Africa — Africa is [underdeveloped] which means that Canada is more advanced in development than Africa. Agree with me that, for example, coming from Malawi to UVic, there are a lot of differences that were new — everything was new. However, if I’m a newcomer or if I was to talk to a newcomer, that shouldn’t be a problem. It just takes a few days, a few months to feel at home and to feel like everything is common.

What is your favourite memory on campus (if you have one)?

This is my first semester [at UVic]. I haven’t really participated in a lot of things at the campus. Maybe the memory would be one of my courses that I’m taking. I’ve met really good classmates in this class, whereby this course tends to have group assignments so we work in groups. And then we can go to the community to find social workers and have discussions with them. We discuss and learn from them. So I have enjoyed being in this group. In this group, I have been able to make friends. And whenever I share my experience from my country, they accept it and they respond positively to it.

The other thing I remember and want to mention are my best friends, the SRP group . . . they just introduced the football club. I remember I last played football in Malawi — that was in 2011. I reached Canada in August and I was starting school. And then December/January, it was a very bad time with snow; I couldn’t get the chance [to play]. When I came here, I was now getting through everything and these guys just introduced soccer, which I love so much. So it’s a memory for me.

What is one of your favourite dishes from your country of origin?

From my country, I enjoy eating nsima and fish. I’ll just explain how we make nsima, or ugali: it’s made by flour, it can be cassava flour or maize flour. So when you have that flour, you should boil water and take that flour and water and you mix it, and it turns into a meal, a food which we call nsima or ugali. We use that with a fish sauce or meat. Some like it with beans, but I enjoy it with fish.

What is an interesting cultural difference between your country of origin and Canada?

There are a lot of differences [laughter], and I always like going with examples.

When I reached, Canada they came to pick me up from the airport. They knew I was tired, of course, and that I was hungry, and that they had to give me food. Honestly, I didn’t know the food they gave me. So food is different, totally different.

The following day, one of the members of the [WUSC] local committee had to come and pick me up and take me to the health insurance so that I can make my card and everything, and I noticed the first [difference in dress]. And [fortunately] enough, she had to explain to me, because she knew she was looking different than what I know. So dressing in Canada is different than in my country. Mostly for females, they dress differently than my country and the whole of Africa, if Africans can agree with me. So dressing is totally, totally different.

The other thing is greetings. In Canada, the greetings are different to my country. There are greetings in Canada that I can’t even try in my country. I can’t dream of doing that in my country. An example would be a hug. In my country, we are not used to hugs. When you greet someone you’ve just met, we just shake hands. We don’t hug. The other thing in my country, you can’t wave [at] someone in greeting unless you’re really friendly. It seems impolite to just wave at people unless you know them, or they’re maybe siblings or really friends — not people you’ve just met or see on campus. We don’t do that.

Where is your favourite spot to hang out in Victoria?

Honestly, apart from soccer, I like swimming. I like being in water, just swimming, playing any kind of game that’s in water or at the beach. But I haven’t done that; I think it’s not the right [season] to do that, but I’ve been going around the ocean with some friends, just to see what is happening. And oh my god, I’m waiting for the summer to go and swim. So I would like to spend my time at the ocean. And in Canada, we have good, good forests and mountains I would like to view. I would love to spend my time in the mountains in Victoria (like Mt. Doug) or in the ocean or go to soccer.  

Newcomers really need enough of support to feel at home and that they are in the right place for education.

Have you joined any clubs at UVic and are there any clubs that you would like to join?

Well what I’ve been doing all this semester is the WUSC club, and getting to know other clubs [and] what they do, and I’m looking forward to joining [others].

Do you have anything else to add or let UVic know?

I would [like] UVic to know that I am a newcomer and an immigrant in Canada. It’s a privilege for me to be at UVic, and remains my request that UVic [keeps] putting together potential network support for newcomers, for immigrants, [so] they can easily adapt to education. This is not meaning that the network support is not enough, I am convinced that it is enough, but I ask them to keep an eye on that. Newcomers really need enough of support to feel at home and that they are in the right place for education.

For more Stories Without Borders, read part two, part three, and part four.

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