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New fund gives hope to refugees starting over at USask – News

New fund gives hope to refugees starting over at USask – News
New fund gives hope to refugees starting over at USask – News

Soomaya Javadi in Afghanistan before the Taliban took over. (Photo: Submitted)

She and her family spent the next month traveling through Afghanistan, looking for a way out. Memories of that time haunt her as very bleak: she had to wear a long black hijab to avoid attention, and she could not imagine a future.

But one question kept coming to her mind: “Will I let the Taliban define me and my future? Or will I fight for my existence with everything I have?”

That’s where 30 Birds Foundation came in. Javadi and her family were among the more than 400 refugees from Afghanistan who fled to Canada with the help of the foundation. Until she arrived here, Javadi had never heard of Saskatoon and very little about Canada.

“When we landed in Saskatoon, my first thought was, ‘How can I go back to school?’”

During her first months in Saskatoon, USask staff and teachers worked as volunteers at the Support network for refugee studentsled by Dr Andrew Ireson (PhD) and Wenona Partridge and established in response to the needs expressed by refugees from Afghanistan, reached out to Soomaya and other refugees. A meeting followed with USask Provost and Vice-President Academic, Dr Airini.

“We were given the opportunity to share our experiences (with university leaders, faculty and staff). My biggest concern was that we, girls from Afghanistan, had left our homes to be free to continue our education, and if we could not do that because of financial barriers, all our sacrifices would have been in vain.”

It was through this close network of people on campus that Javadi learned about the Refugee Student Empowerment Fund.

Resettled refugees may face significant barriers to pursuing or continuing their education in Canada. For students like Javadi, this may include the inability to access transcripts and diplomas from Taliban-controlled institutions in Afghanistan or university-age refugees who have sole financial responsibility for younger siblings and their non-English-speaking parents, making standard student loans woefully inadequate to cover the true cost of education.

Thus, the Refugee Student Empowerment Fund was established. The fund is available to both undergraduate and graduate students, and USask is currently committed to supporting successful students for two years. Students receive $10,000 in their first year and another $10,000 in their second year. There are ten scholarships available for the 2024/25 academic year, and individuals can apply for the $10,000 scholarships once they have started their application for admission, even before they are admitted.

“By supporting and empowering talented individuals who have settled in Saskatchewan, we are investing in our communities and recognizing that some higher education journeys may be interrupted for reasons beyond an individual’s control,” said Pirita Mattola, senior director, Student Engagement and Academic Success. “I hope this fund can alleviate some of the financial pressures resettled refugees feel and provide hope that studying at our university is within reach.”

The fund had a significant impact on Javadi’s personal and academic life. During her first year at USask, she had to work up to 40 hours a week and take five courses, including two labs. She had to take out student loans while supporting her family. All of this was on top of the mental and emotional toll of dealing with their harrowing experiences under the Taliban and leaving their home country.

“I still had language barriers and my average was nowhere near high enough to even consider dental school.”

In her second year, with the help of the fund, Javadi increased her average by 8.75 percent. She was able to work less and “savour” the learning experience.

“I took two courses this spring and biked to campus almost every day. I sat in my favorite spot in the Leslie and Irene Dubé Health Sciences Library by the big windows and studied for hours, soaking in the joy, hope, and sunshine when it was there.”

Since Javadi’s studies from Afghanistan are not transferable here, she is majoring in health sciences with the intention of going back into dentistry. She has not given up hope and a fire has been lit inside her.

“The entire world has given up on Afghanistan and left it to the Taliban. In other words, they have given up on every Afghan girl within those borders. That’s why I believe that we are the ones who must not give up on ourselves,” Javadi shared. “If we persevere long enough, endure the challenges and adversity, and keep moving forward, we will find meaning, happiness, and fulfillment even as we struggle. We will inspire others, and one day, we may be the change we all want to see in this world.”

Students who wish to apply for this funding can visit the website Scholarships and grants channel In PAWS, click the green “Apply” button and select the “Refugee Student Empowerment Fund” application from the student dropdown menu. Applicants must provide evidence of their refugee status and submit a statement about how the scholarship will help them complete their degree and achieve their educational goals. The application deadline is July 15.