Empowered by education: Student Refugee Program helps young people pursue a new life through academics


When Kassim Ibrahim thinks of North America, he thinks of a land of freedom and vast opportunity. 

Ibrahim grew up in Kenya in a refugee camp. In the camp, he cooked for his family and taught mathematics to other students. Education is highly valued in his community, but opportunities were scarce. In August 2022, the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), the University of Waterloo, and Conrad Grebel University College welcomed Kassim to Canada through the Student Refugee Program (SRP). 

“Everyone in my refugee camp looks for this opportunity. The opportunity of coming to Canada through education,” Ibrahim said. “I just prayed I could be a part of it.”

With the goal to create more educational, economic, and empowerment opportunities, the WUSC program works in over 15 countries helping young people, particularly young refugees, pursue higher education. 

Each semester, WUSA charges an optional fee of $5.18 to students to support the SRP. For Grebelites, this fee is an additional $20 to ensure student refugees can live at Grebel and be an active and integral part of the community. The SRP provides sponsored students with support to thrive academically, spiritually, and personally through student life at UW and Grebel. 

“Sponsored students develop lifelong friends, enhance their leadership skills, engage in active citizenship, and work hard to prepare for their future with education, training, and work experience,” noted Beverley Fretz, director of student services at Grebel. “SRP sponsored students bring insightful perspectives to the community, enriching student life with their lived experience and knowledge.”  

“Coming here through WUSC provided a supportive community. They have transformed my life,” Ibrahim said. “You can imagine after being born in a refugee camp and living there for 20 years, I never had hope of living out of the camp. There are so many challenges.” 

When he arrived in Canada, Grebel student services picked him up from the airport. When they arrived at Grebel, Ibrahim asked how long the electricity would be on. “In the camp, you don’t have freedom like you could have in Canada. When someone brings you from that to a lifestyle like this, it is like a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ibrahim shared. 

Now, Ibrahim is a first-year student at UW, and a current resident at Grebel. He is the first in his family to have reached this level of education. “My parents see their dreams through me,” he said.

Ibrahim understands that university is not always easy and can be overwhelming. However, peers and student services at Grebel make Ibrahim feel safe to express any hardship, offering him unconditional support and reassurance. 

“Every person I have been in contact with has been helpful in some way or another, down to the kitchen staff who accommodated my dietary restrictions. The supportive environment here is very strong, I feel integrated.”

As he settles into life in Canada, Ibrahim’s studies remain his top priority. “You don’t only learn for yourself. You learn for everyone, including your parents and family,” he said. “Once you learn, you become successful. You become free from ignorance and exploitation. I feel like learning redeems me from my refugee status as I am equipped with education to support me.”