On January 24, Alice Kasem arrived in Canada to continue her educational journey at UTM, leaving her parents, brother, 22, and sister, 7, behind in Lebanon.
Kasem is the second refugee student to arrive at UTM this academic year. Her arrival was sponsored through the World University Service of Canada, an organization dedicated to providing student refugees with an accessible education and UTMSU’s local WUSC local committee, which is funded through a student levy.
Back in Syria, Kasem had been in her fourth year of university as a pharmacy student. If she had continued studying and taken summer semesters, Kasem would have graduated in one year and a half. But when the Syrian civil war escalated, she and her family were forced to flee to Lebanon in December of 2014.
“I thought [that the civil war] was a small thing, like everyone did. It’ll pass in a week or two. But we ended up staying in Syria, during the war, for four years,” said Kasem.
In Syria, Kasem witnessed a bomb that landed in front of her 22-year-old brother. Fortunately, it didn’t explode.
“If it did, he would be dead right now,” she said.
Kasem also mentioned that previously, her favourite hobbies included playing piano, but that all changed within the span of four years. “I stopped practicing piano because I couldn’t go to the institution because of how dangerous the roads were. I couldn’t read either, because you needed the mood to read,” she said.
The Kasem family could no longer stay in Syria because of the bombing, constant fear of kidnappings, and the lack of electricity. However, they didn’t feel safe after arriving in Lebanon, either.
“They mistreated Syrians, especially in the refugee camps. And if they see that your car is Syrian, they start harassing you in the car,” she recalled.
According to Kasem, Syrians cannot work in Lebanon, as several Lebanese citizens believe that Syrians will “sabotage” the economy. This meant that Kasem’s father was left without a job for the time being. Additionally, Kasem did not continue her studies in Lebanon, saying that at that point, her family was still thinking of travelling.
“It’s so hard to live in a place that you know you’re not settling in,” she said. “You feel like you just want to go out, find a job, and move on.
“We didn’t want to live [in Lebanon]—and if you want to continue your education in a place, you’ll have to stick in that place,” Kasem said. “All my friends who are still in Syria graduated, but my family’s position was that education is important, but safety is more important.”
In March 2015, Kasem and her family decided to apply for resettlement in Canada through the UN Refugee Agency. The family’s files were selected for the resettlement program, which was followed by a series of interviews. The next step would finalize their arrival to Canada—a call from the Canadian embassy.
“[It had] been almost a year. But back then, Canada wasn’t taking people, and even though they weren’t taking people, we insisted. The interviewer said that they might not take us in a year but we said [that] it’s okay, because we really wanted Canada,” Kasem said.
The Kasem family insisted on moving to Canada because of the language, the culture, and the people.
“My father had a great job in Syria, so he could work here [in Canada]. My mother also has an Arabic literature degree from college, and they really want to come here,” she added.
After not hearing back from the Canadian embassy, Kasem decided to apply for the WUSC program last July. After an initial approval, a test in the embassy, and an oral interview, she was selected for the WUSC program.
“I picked it because it was part of my plan—me and my family are going to Canada,” said Kasem. “Sometimes you just want a point to start and I got this big opportunity.”
When asked about her family, Kasem told The Medium that they are still in Lebanon.
“Leaving my 7-year-old sister was one of the hardest things I had to do. She was so mature about it, even though she was hurt from inside. The day that I left, she said, ‘I don’t want to cry because I don’t want to make you cry.’
“That’s the only reason that Dad allowed me to go before them, or if they even come, because they feel bad. I lost three years of school because of war. They just wanted me to move on with my life, even though their situation in Lebanon is not good,” she said.
When asked about her thoughts of Canada so far, Kasem smiled.
“I was so happy when I came here. I wanted to be talked to like I was a normal person. I have a life. I had a house. I had a car. I had everything. They’re just gone. I didn’t come from a tent. Some people don’t know the difference. A refugee is just someone whose war came to his country, so he had to move. A refugee is not stupid or sick,” she said.
When asked how she’s finding UTM so far, Kasem said that she felt overwhelmed by the amount of support she’s received and said that “the welcoming was very beautiful. A lot of people are trying to help. You really feel like you could be friends with them. […] [It doesn’t] feel like they’re doing this out of pity.”
At UTM, WUSC sponsors the refugee’s student’s fees for their entire first year. In her first week at UTM, Kasem isn’t worried about future payments since her main concern lies in finding and settling into courses that count towards her degree.
Kasem is aware that her options include taking on a job next year, or applying for a loan.
“I don’t mind having a job. If I can do both, studying and a job, then that’s fine,” said Kasem.
Kasem hopes to continue her pharmaceutical studies and for her family to join her soon in Canada. She is also looking forward to accomplishing things that she wasn’t able to do because of the war, saying, “I want to go back to the mood where I can pick up a paper and write. But I also want to try skiing and skating. I also look forward to trying new foods.
“I used to read, play piano, and sing. I was really happy. I lost that because of [the] war, but I got through it, and I hope that my family can pass this too. I’m so grateful for the opportunity that WUSC gave me,” she said.