Columbia College: CREATE a place a refuge

In 2016, just as the first wave of Syrian refugees started to arrive in Canada, Columbia College began its journey to help students displaced by social upheaval and/or conflict to gain access to formal education and support their transition to life in Canada. Starting from a couple of refugee bursaries, the program has grown by leaps and bounds, culminating in the establishment of the Columbia College Centre for Equitable Access to Transformative Education (CREATE) in 2021.

Over the past five years, Columbia College’s Refugee Bursary program has expanded to include student refugees from Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Burundi, Myanmar, Somalia, Libya, Egypt, and Ethiopia as well as those from Syria.

“We need to rethink what it means to be a refugee,” said Chelsey Acierno, Recruitment Manager, Columbia College. “It does not automatically mean that you are poor, unskilled or that you’ve entered Canada illegally. A growing number entered Canada legally as an international student. Due to unforeseen circumstances, like natural disaster, forced migration, religious persecution, armed conflict, etc., they are cut off from their families, friends, and funds and, through no fault of their own, become refugees. Regardless of circumstances, the refugee to permanent resident process is long. In the meantime, those seeking education still need study permits and to pay international fees. It may be some time before they can access the public education system as a permanent resident. Our thought at the College was why not help keep them in school as they work through the process.” 

Information about the program has spread by word of mouth, attracting a spectrum of refugees from international students, whose status changed while studying in Canada, to students who came to Canada as refugees and those directly sponsored by global refugee organizations, such as World University Services of Canada.”

“The number one thing we are trying to reduce is roadblocks, be it by simply recognizing documents or through financial supports,” said Acierno. “These students have faced monumental hurdles that most people can’t even comprehend. Our goals are to reduce their burden and help refugee students to simply be youth. A lot of these students have had to grow up way too fast.”

Institutional support for refugee youth not only benefits the student but also the college community as a whole.

“Access to formal education opens doors,”  said Ginny Chien, Dean of the English Language Centre and Applied Skills Program Coordinator, Columbia College, “creating safe environments for these students to expand their English skills, learn to express themselves, and share their experiences.  These students bring a whole different perspective into the classroom. Because they have had their education disrupted, they understand what it it’s like to not be allowed to study, to physically not be able to go to school, or to have their school no longer exist. They value education and inspire their non-refugee peers with their eagerness to learn and through their perseverance.”

Columbia College offers a range of support options from Internal Claimant and Resettlement bursaries to the Global Scholars program, which is run in partnership with World University Services of Canada.

“We are really proud of what we’ve been able accomplish,” said Chien. “The key to our success is a dedicated student support team. A team knowledgeable about the immigration process for protected people. A team that can build strong rapport with students, where student can advocate for each other, discuss their issues, and feel safe coming for help. These students are so resilient. It’s amazing to be part of their journey.”

Since its start, the Columbia College Refugee Bursary program has supported over 70 student refugees and offered over $1.3 million in full scholarships. With the launch of CREATE in 2021, the College is working with the community to expand supports available for youth and aspiring students who have been forcibly displaced to restart their educational journey, and ultimately succeed.