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ISOW graduation

Supporting a new start in Canada

Laurier’s student-run International Students Overcoming War is changing lives by creating opportunity for scholars from war-torn countries

Story by Claire Bruner-Prime

After a long journey, Saja Saymeh and Alik Sarian were greeted with cheers and waves from Laurier students and faculty members when they arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in August 2019.

Saymeh, from the Gaza Strip, and Sarian, a Syrian living in Lebanon, had arrived in Canada to study at Laurier with the assistance of International Students Overcoming War (ISOW), a student-run and student-funded organization that provides scholarships and support to students from countries in the midst of conflict.

Soon, Saymeh and Sarian were on their way to their new home in Waterloo, which they would share with other ISOW scholars. Laurier student volunteers made sure the home was fully furnished and outfitted with everything the students would need, from new bed sheets to a fully stocked fridge and cupboards, with utilities and internet services already taken care of.

Saja Saymeh

ISOW scholar Saja Saymeh.

Gavin Brockett, ISOW faculty advisor and an associate professor in Laurier’s History, Religion and Culture and Global Studies programs, along with his partner, Meg Brockett, a Kitchener-Waterloo-based counsellor, welcomed the scholars in their new home. “When I saw Meg smiling at me I thought, ‘I have a family here so I should not be worried about anything,’” says Saymeh, thinking back on the day she arrived in Canada.

Alik Sarian

ISOW scholar Alik Sarian.

Laurier students helped Saymeh and Sarian set up bank accounts, learn how to use public transit and find their textbooks for the upcoming term. Later, they helped the two scholars adjust from memorization and exam-based learning, which they were used to, to writing papers and presenting in class. ISOW also planned social events for its scholars and volunteers, including hikes and birthday parties, and a Middle Eastern cultural evening with traditional food, dancing and games that was open to the larger Laurier community.

Nearly 30 Laurier students from across the university volunteer with ISOW every year. Some assist with managing the finances of the ISOW scholarship, others organize meetings and events, manage the group’s website, social media and marketing, and train and recruit volunteers. Volunteers also support ISOW scholars in their day-to-day lives and make decisions about choosing prospective scholars and organizations to partner with. An ISOW intern is also kept busy helping scholars before they arrive with their applications, paperwork, plane tickets and study permits – a process that involved a month-and-a-half-long wait in Jordan for Saymeh and obtaining a letter of recommendation from local Member of Parliament Bardish Chagger for Sarian.

“ISOW is unique because it is driven by the passion and commitment of students who readily give up hundreds of hours a year to ensure its success,” says Brockett. “In the process, they hone various skills and develop competencies that we know will help them as they move into the workforce upon graduation. As a university, this makes the initiative incredibly compelling because not only are we addressing a very real global social problem – the impact of war – but our students are applying what they have learned in multiple classes in the process. Students are undertaking meaningful humanitarian action in a thoughtful and reflective manner informed by their entire undergraduate education.”

Laurier students have always been at the heart of ISOW. In 2013, the founder of the Daughters for Life Foundation reached out to Brockett hoping to partner with Laurier to give young women from the Middle East an opportunity to study at the university. Students in one of Brockett’s seminar courses explored the idea as a group project.

After a year of research and planning, Brockett and some of the original group members started the organization, then called Daughters for Life Laurier, and asked the undergraduate and graduate students’ unions to approve an $4 levy per student per term to fund scholars’ tuition and living costs. In 2015, they welcomed their first two scholars, one from Egypt and one from Lebanon, through Daughters for Life.

Since then, ISOW has partnered with Jusoor Syria, the Iraqi and Syrian Student Project and Prospect Burma, with the partner agencies typically promoting the opportunity in their regions and finding ISOW scholar candidates to interview and select. Partner organizations also cover up to 25 per cent of the cost of each scholarship. 

ISOW event

ISOW faculty advisor Gavin Brockett pictured with May Mahrat and Manar Naeem prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To date, ISOW has supported 23 scholars, seven of whom are still studying. Nearly all alumni of the program remain in Canada and have started careers here. Two have brought their spouses to Canada, and one has brought her child as well. Sarian, now a fourth-year Health Sciences student, plans to apply to a Canadian medical school when she graduates and become a doctor. Saymeh, now a third-year Global Studies student, hopes to dedicate her life to supporting vulnerable groups, especially women, in Gaza.

“In Gaza, women usually just get their degrees and then get married,” says Saymeh. “I would like to show women that they can do more than just get married, that they have a future they can fight for.”

ISOW meeting

Recent Laurier alumna Oshish Ungras, an ISOW intern and former ISOW president, speaks with ISOW student volunteers during an ISOW event held prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

ISOW student volunteers benefit, too. Brockett challenges them to learn about and resolve practical issues related to scholars’ travel to Canada, academic credentials and tenancy rights on their own, as well as take on leadership roles, explore new directions for the organization and make decisions that have life-long impacts on scholars’ lives.

The experience has inspired some volunteers to consider careers in related fields. Oshish Ungras, an ISOW intern, recent Laurier alumna and former ISOW president, is now pursuing her master’s degree in Global Governance at the University of Waterloo and hopes to study law. She is interested in learning more about the role of education in building peace and supporting refugees.

“ISOW is made up of History, Political Science and Global Studies students, for the most part,” says Ungras, who earned a degree in Global Studies at Laurier. “We’re always learning about problems in the world, but there’s often this feeling of helplessness, that there’s not much that we can do. At ISOW, we focus on problems, but also ways to fix them. We make a real impact in people’s lives and that makes my degree much more meaningful.

“ISOW is an example of what students can do when they’re given the opportunity to make change happen.”

Oshish Ungras

“ISOW is an example of what students can do when they’re given the opportunity to make change happen.”

ISOW group

Laurier ISOW scholars and volunteers gather for a photo prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

ISOW is the only program of its kind in Canada, providing scholarships to international students from conflict areas who have not been able to leave their home as refugees. Also unique is that ISOW is run and funded almost entirely by Laurier students.

An advisory committee made up of senior leaders – including Ivan Joseph, Laurier’s vice-president of student affairs; Sofie Lachapelle, dean of the Faculty of Arts; John Fraser, assistant vice-president of integrated planning and budgeting; Ben Yang, director of global engagement; Christine Dale, director of financial services; and Joel Porter, Laurier’s director of development, faculties – meet once a term to hear updates about ISOW, offer support and mentorship to ISOW leaders, and make final decisions about which organizations will partner with the university through ISOW.

“ISOW has been successful because Laurier has been so uniquely supportive,” says Brockett. “Senior leaders, especially President Deborah MacLatchy and former vice-president of student affairs David McMurray, have been champions of the program right from the beginning and have provided support and guidance throughout the years.”

Laurier has also provided scholarship funds to offset the cost of international tuition fees, while professors have worked closely with students in Directed Studies courses in which they integrate academic and applied learning. Larger experiential learning courses for ISOW directors also allow students to study plans for ISOW’s future. Recently, ISOW students and scholars have been researching new funding streams, ways to assist scholars in need from around the world without relying on external organizations, and a new scholarship specifically for refugees who are already living in Waterloo Region. They have also been working with international partners to explore the possibility of establishing similar programs at other universities.

Laurier staff members also work behind the scenes to support ISOW scholars in their applications, preparing offers of admissions, registering students and providing support services, from financial support to physical and mental health services.

Helping prospective ISOW scholars get accepted into Laurier is the most rewarding part of Jennifer Williams’ role. As the international admissions coordinator in the Office of Enrolment Services, Williams advocates for ISOW scholars’ acceptance when their academic credentials don’t exactly match Laurier’s application criteria.

Because Laurier is a referral partner with the World Education Services Gateway Program, Williams can assess and validate the educational credentials of those who have been displaced and have limited proof of their academic achievement, a service Laurier also offers to community members in Waterloo Region. She can also organize testing, such as an English proficiency test, if a prospective scholar studied English in a refugee camp but has no proof. Other times, Williams requests a letter of support from the admitting faculty’s dean explaining how a scholar would be provided extra support to address any gap in their qualifications.

“For ISOW scholars, coming to Laurier is a huge, life-changing experience. This is their chance to come to Canada, to get an education, to make a difference.”

Jennifer Williams

“In admissions, you’re changing people’s lives, whether it’s an Ontario Grade 12 student or a mature international student,” says Williams. “For ISOW scholars, coming to Laurier is a huge, life-changing experience. This is their chance to come to Canada, to get an education, to make a difference. Sometimes they can bring their families over and get them out of war-torn areas.

“For me to have any small part in that is just so rewarding. It’s a true embodiment of ‘Inspiring Lives.’”

ISOW garden

Meg Brockett, known as “ISOW Mom” for her dedication to the organization, gardens with ISOW scholars and volunteers prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As ISOW’s faculty advisor, Brockett has been the driving force behind the organization’s vision and growth since it started as an idea in his classroom, but his dedication extends beyond the responsibilities of his role. Brockett and his partner, Meg, also welcome ISOW scholars and Laurier students to their property for campfires, canoe trips, hikes and other activities. They also provide scholars with support, guidance and a listening ear.

The Brocketts are described as a second family by many ISOW scholars, some of whom, like Saymeh and Sarian, haven’t seen their families in person since before the pandemic. The couple has stayed close with many alumni, including former ISOW scholars and volunteers, years later. Meg’s dedication has earned her the title of “ISOW Mom.”

“I think of Dr. Brockett and Meg as parents away from home,” says Sarian. “If we have any problems, we can reach out to them, the ISOW leaders or the ISOW intern. It’s kind of nice to have someone to lean on when you need it.  

“I can’t even count the number of friends I’ve made from ISOW. After a certain period, you stop referring to them as people there to help you, they are just friends.”

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