Toronto, Canada

Making Their Mark: Unlocking Educational Opportunity for Young Refugees

The Maytree Foundation

October 9, 2009

Creating educational opportunity takes more than funding

All that was needed to unlock educational opportunities for aspiring young refugees in Canada were ” three small words.”

The three words “… and protected persons …” were missing from the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act. This is the Act which governs who has access in Canada to student loans for purposes of post-secondary education.

The addition of these words to the legislation enabled protected persons to apply for student loans to finance their post secondary education and leave behind a potential cycle of wasted talent and frustrated ambition.

Making Their Mark

The story of this good idea began in 1999 (before the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act had been amended). With protected persons unable to access financial assistance for education, the Maytree Scholarship Program was created to fill this gap. Today the Scholarship Program continues to assist students through a well-conceived programme of support and activities.

Each year Maytree accepts a new group of students between the ages of 17-26 who are entering their first or second year of a university or college in Toronto.

The Maytree programme is both intensive and participatory. In addition to funding that covers tuition, books, transportation, rent and a living allowance, students receive mentoring and opportunities for skills development. For the past three years scholarship students have also participated in a group community service project for the duration of the school year.  Most important, the program creates a peer network that encourages the students to create bonds both with each other and with their new communities.

However, to fully understand the impact of the Maytree Scholarship Program requires meeting the Scholarship Program participants and sharing their journeys from newly arrived young refugees to Toronto to their current roles as Canadian physicians, lawyers, nurses, journalists and philosophers.

Stories like that of Axelle Karera, who at 14 was forced to hide for three months to escape the Rwandan genocide. Seven years later, she arrived in Toronto, hopeful for a chance to rebuild her life but well aware of the obstacles.

“I started to see all the hurdles that stood in my path. As a protected person, I was ineligible for student assistance, and I thought by the time I started working and earning a living, it would be hard to change course,” she remembers.

After Axelle enrolled in some English classes, several teachers recognized her potential and encouraged her to find a way to attend university. Axelle began with two philosophy courses and, when these ended, she was keen to learn more but lacked the funding to continue her education. A scholarship from Maytree helped change all that. Last August, Axelle left Toronto to begin studying for her PhD in philosophy at Pennsylvania State University. Of two hundred applicants, Axelle was one of just seven that were admitted to the doctoral program.

Lasting Change

Without access to student loans, the high costs of post-secondary education was an impediment that increased the vulnerability of these former refugees and stood in the way of realizing their dreams and ambitions.  The Scholarship Program was able to help a few of these students annually, however, Maytree recognized that this flaw in the system could only be permanently altered by addressing the underlying social policy and pressing for appropriate changes to existing legislation.

What was needed was the addition of the three words “and protected persons” to the governing legislation. A simple change that a community of partners, a series of campaigns and an ongoing commitment to improve the refugee system took five years to achieve.

The success of the alumni of the Maytree Scholarship program -and the often harrowing adversities that the former refugees had overcome- became part of the case for change. Scholarship students became actively involved in the campaign, travelling to Ottawa to present their stories and successes to parliamentarians.

Uitsile Ndlovu, Maytree Scholarship Student, sums up what the experience meant for her:  “[ … as someone who came to Canada as a refugee], … it was important for me to recognize that anyone in any position is capable of making a difference in another person’s life. You don’t necessarily have to be at the top of the ladder to lift someone up.”

In 2003, the legislative change to allow protected persons to apply for student loans was included in the 2003 federal Budget – and passed to a standing ovation in the Canadian House of Commons.

The Work Continues

Maytree, the scholarship students and a determined community of supporters worked hard to help reduce systemic barriers to refugee access to higher education. To date, Maytree has provided 150 scholarships to protected persons who have settled in Canada and continues to work with its aspiring college and university students and to press for progressive social change

“In these times of diminishing compassion and hardening attitudes towards refugees worldwide and in Canada, we believe that our scholarship program makes an excellent case for Canada’s continued and improved openness to refugees,” says Judy Broadbent, Vice Chair, Maytree.

In October 2009, the Scholarship program celebrated its tenth year anniversary by publishing Making Their Mark, a compilation of stories about former and current scholarship students, with an essay on the Canadian refugee system by Peter Showler, Director of the Refugee Forum, located at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa.

The Maytree Scholarship Program began as a local, practical and compassionate response to a flaw in the refugee system and went on to contribute to policy reform that now benefits hundreds of young refugees across Canada, an outstanding example of how a simple good idea can result in powerful social change.

To access the 10-year anniversary report, Making Their Mark, click here.

Making it Work for You:

  • Program participants can be your best ambassadors. Let their success stories help you achieve your organizational goals.
  • The combination of mentoring and peer support creates a secure environment for vulnerable or marginalized populations and makes participants into potential leaders.
  • Social change initiatives require good research, a practical understanding of the regulatory environment and strategies for on-the-ground impact and long-term success
  • Good practice and successful outcomes can pave the way for policy change