The LUSU Student Refugee Program

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The global refugee crisis has more than doubled in scope in the past ten years. The UNHCR revealed that in 2022, the total number of forcibly displaced people had surpassed 100 million. In other words, over 1.2% of the world’s population has been forced to leave their home. Among them are 32.5 million refugees. That’s close to the entire population of Canada.
The 2021 Canadian Census revealed 218,430 new refugees were admitted as permanent residents and still residing in Canada. 60,795 new Syrian-born refugees were admitted and living in Canada, making up 27.8% of the current refugee population in Canada. Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Pakistan were the other common countries of origin for new refugees in Canada during that same time frame.

The LUSU Refugee Program (LRSP)

In 1999, Lakehead University students voted to contribute $1 annually to a fund for sponsoring a refugee student. Funds were collected, and the first student was supported in 2008. That year, students voted to increase contributions to $2 per year and up to $5 in 2009. 

In 2016, the levy was increased to $7, and has remained at that amount ever since. (Even though the fee should be at least $8.50 if you were to account for inflation).  

The LUSU Refugee Program (LRSP), funded by the student levy, assists refugees selected through the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) Student Refugee Program. WUSC is a Canadian non-profit organization that works to improve opportunities for youth across the globe. WUSC’s Student Refugee Program partners with universities, colleges and CEGEPs across Canada to support refugees resettle and pursue higher education. 150 student refugees are sponsored on over 100 campuses each year.

Each campus has its own local committee for raising funds, increasing awareness and, most importantly, supporting the newly arrived students with day-to-day social and academic support. 

As of 2023, LUSU has sponsored over 25 refugee students to pursue post-secondary studies at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. 

Marteena’s Story

Marteena Aal-Hano is a 4th-year student studying Outdoor Recreation Parks and Tourism at Lakehead. 

Marteena was living in Jordan as a refugee after she left Iraq with her family in 2014. At that time, her family was able to legally travel to Jordan and apply for U.N. asylum seeker status. 

Marteena explains that although the relationship between Iraq and Jordan was stable, refugees had few opportunities to study or work. 

“I couldn’t study at university because we had to pay […] and also we weren’t able to work,” recalls Marteena.

“We have to work with the church or somewhere the government doesn’t know about you. If they know about you, they will give you a warning, and if they catch you again, they will send you back.”

Marteena learned about the WUSC Student Refugee Program through the Jesuit Centre in Jordan. The centre provided free English lessons for refugees, and she spent a lot of time there.  

“I used to go there [Jesuit Centre] for fun because all my friends so we can just go and spend time […] And then that’s how I knew about WUSC. My teacher, she’d say, oh Marteena, why don’t you apply for it? I was like, no, I don’t want to go to Canada because all my family is in the U.S.”

At the time, Marteena and her father were waiting to join the rest of their family in the U.S. Her father encouraged her to apply for the WUSC program since they had been waiting for a while. The process is quite extensive and can take up to a year.

“It’s a long process. First, we apply. If we are good, then they ask for a resume and for a high school degree,” explains Marteena. 

Next are various interviews, followed by English language competency exams and medical checks. They have to complete a general interview with WUSC, and if they pass, then they interview with the Canadian embassy. The immigration process begins, and once they arrive in Canada, they are granted Permanent Residency (P.R.). 

The chances of being accepted to WUSC are also quite slim; Marteen was 1 of 25 students selected from Jordan. After the lengthy application process and extensive travels, Marteena arrived in Thunder Bay and was welcomed by the Lakehead University committee in August 2018. 

Fatima’s Story

Fatima Alatsha arrived in Thunder Bay in December 2020 and was welcomed in true Northwestern Ontario fashion: with an extreme snowstorm!

Fatima is a 2nd-year Computer Science student originally from Northern Syria. When she was 15, she left home with her family to escape the war; first, they traveled south to Damascus, then when the situation worsened, the Alatsha family moved to Jordan. 

Syrians weren’t allowed into Jordan at the time, so they had to cross the border illegally and stay in a refugee camp. 

We stayed in a refugee camp for a while, and then we also escaped,” recalls Fatima. “You’re not allowed to leave the refugee camp, and the situation there is really bad.”

Fatima and her family were in Irbid for a month and then moved to the capital of Jordan, Amman, where she stayed for over six years. 

“I stayed in Jordan for three years before I could go back to high school,” recalls Fatima. “I went to high school for two years. I graduated when I was 21, I think. […] And it’s very average for refugees. So many of them missed many years.”

Fatima shares how there were numerous restrictions for Syrian refugees in Jordan; they had to attend separate, lower-quality schools but were still expected to write the same exams as Jordanian students. 

“So, on average for Syrian students, it’s way more difficult for them to get good grades, to even qualify to go to school or get scholarships. I think this is something good about WUSC that they didn’t actually really focus on average.”

The WUSC Student Refugee Program is regarded as one of Jordan’s best programs for refugees. Fatima remembers it being a “big deal” whenever applications opened each year. 

She applied to the Student Refugee Program twice, once while she was still finishing high school and then a second time when she had completed high school. The second time she got in. 

Similarly to Marteena, Fatima had to go through the entire application process. She also had to sign extra documentation with the Jordanian government. 

“I had to sign a paper that I am basically banned from ever going back to Jordan, even if I get another citizenship because I entered illegally and I was there as a refugee for so long,” recalls Fatima. 

Fatima arrived in Thunder Bay in the middle of a December snowstorm. 

“I was wearing my thickest jacket. I’m like, oh, I’m wearing so many layers. I’ll be fine. And then this wind hit me, like, what is this? I’ve never felt this cold. And it’s like, I didn’t know this feeling existed,” recalls Fatima, laughing at the memory. “I was getting out of the car, and there was snow, and I’ve never walked in so much snow in my life.”

You can watch a video of Fatima’s arrival here.  

How WUSC Local Committee Supports Refugee Students 

Welcoming Students to Thunder Bay

WUSC Lakehead Local Committee co-chair Feras Battah explains how they always ensure to give the refugees a warm welcome when they arrive on campus. Before the student’s arrival, the volunteers will purchase groceries and decorate their residences with signs and flowers. 

When students touch down in Thunder Bay, they are greeted at the airport by the committee, other students and volunteers. Feras shares how they always ensure there is someone who speaks the same language as the incoming student.

“When they come here, they really need their own language to feel at home.”

When Fatima arrived in Thunder Bay in December 2020, she was welcomed by the WUSC Local Committee, but at a distance. At that time, there were COVID restrictions in place, and the committee was not able to welcome Fatima as they typically would. 

Newly arrived refugee students live in Lakehead Residence during their first year, with housing costs covered by WUSC and a meal plan provided by the university. 

Marteena recalls how staying on campus helped her meet people, practice her English and learn more about Canadian student life. Unfortunately, when Fatima arrived, the university was operating entirely remotely. Typically, refugee students are supported by the local committee, but quarantine and social distancing restrictions made it difficult. Fatima recalls being very lonely her first semester; the campus was empty, courses were online, and very few people lived in residence. 

In non-pandemic times, the local committee offers more in-person support for newly arrived students. 

“Once they arrive, usually we give them like a day or two,” explains Feras. “Then the next day, we go and do their other stuff, like apply for OHIP, since they’re already PR. Then we go get their social insurance number, their driver’s license exam, and then we do school registrations.”

WUSC local committee also helps first-year students purchase a laptop when they arrive, as well as other school supplies and, most importantly, proper winter clothing. Feras emphasizes how they make sure to buy the students high-quality winter gear. Students also receive a monthly allowance throughout the year to cover a cell phone plan and other expenses. 

Alongside Feras, Dr. Kevin Brooks from the Department of Social Justice Studies and Muhammad Azhar, the LUSU Finance officer, chair the WUSC local committee. 

WUSC local committee hosts various events throughout the year, such as a bowling night, potlucks and hikes. 


After completing their first semester of study, the WUSC local committee helps students find part-time jobs. Usually, they help students find a job on campus. For example, Marteena works at Lakehead International, and one of Fatima’s first jobs was at International Enrolment. 

Fatima shares that the support from WUSC helped her become more confident to apply to other roles off campus, notably her current position as a Jr developer for URide.

“I’m very happy and very grateful. I think it’s all because Feras and people in WUSC actually helped me find a job on campus, and this has given me the experience and confidence to apply.”

Studying at Lakehead as a Refugee Student

With English being the second language of almost all incoming refugee students, they are typically required to complete the English Second Language (ESL) program before beginning their degree. Lakehead WUSC local committee has an agreement with the university to have refugee students’ first academic year tuition waived. 


The $7 levy from student fees is WUSC’s primary funding source. With a decrease in enrolment, WUSC Lakehead consequently has fewer funds. Between this and the increased cost of living, it is becoming increasingly difficult to support as many students. Feras shared that they’ll only be supporting one student next year, whereas they typically support two. 

The WUSC Local Committee wants to support as many students as possible; however, without enough funding, they cannot provide the assistance required for refugee students to resettle and pursue post-secondary education. 

There are calls for the university to increase their support for refugee students on campus. Although WUSC Student Refugee Program students are given Permanent Resident (PR) status, they face more challenges than the average Canadian student.

“…most of us have family back home. Like, most of us have to work here to help them,” explains Fatima. “I had to work because I needed to send money to my family. I mean, even though I’m a student, I’m not making that much money, but I still need to take care of my family. And I feel like the university is not taking this into consideration.”

What can students do? 

If you want to help support WUSC Lakehead University Local Committee and refugee students on campus, you can reach out via to the WUSC at Lakehead University through social media or by contacting LUSU. 

To learn more about the global refugee crisis and refugees in Canada, visit: 

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