Thursday, February 22, 2018

The long, long road to Camosun: How the college’s first sponsored student refugee made it here

January 4, 2017 by Adam Boyle, staff writer

It wasn’t easy for Kabwari Chomba to get to Camosun College. Chomba—who arrived at Camosun in August 2016 as the first student brought to the college by the World University Service Canada Student Refugee Program (WUSC)—was born in a refugee camp in the Congo.

“In the camp, life is not simple. There are no jokes, we depend on the food we are given, we buy soap to wash our clothes, and buy books for school,” says Chomba, who is in the Business program at Camosun. “In school there, you would find that in one block and one classroom there are maybe 120 students. You could find that there are also not nearly enough books for everyone; you’d have maybe around 10 people sharing one book at any given time. Imagine sharing one book with 10 or 15 people; it’s very hard.”

The process for selection through WUSC is incredibly hard, too. WUSC takes students who would be able to succeed in English-speaking post-secondary institutions; students who are interested in applying for WUSC aid have to take intense English tests and graduate from high school. Add in struggles due to a lack of textbooks, getting little help from a teacher, and the challenges of everyday life in the refugee camps, and a picture starts to get painted of just how hard it is to be eligible for WUSC sponsorship. Chomba never gave up, though, and he made it through those tests.

“For the selections, maybe 20 people from the camp will be picked,” he says. “From there, you’re tested more. You need good grades—really good grades. It was difficult for me to complete my education and how I had to wait for the WUSC committee to help me to come to Canada. It was a very, very long road for me to come.”

Camosun College student Kabwari Chomba (photo by Jill Westby/Nexus).

Helping hands

Jonathan Perritt-Mo’ungaloa is the main coordinator for the Camosun branch of WUSC. What started off as a Sociology program with some friends quickly turned into an aid program that now has roots in Camosun. After a referendum was passed in the October 2015 Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) student elections asking to raise the student levy to support the student-refugee program, Perritt-Mo’ungaloa and the other members were able to help choose who would be Camosun’s first student from their program. Camosun, for their part, provide free tuition and other forms of assistance.

“WUSC is a very large organization,” says Perritt-Mo’ungaloa. “They have committees all over the country in most major colleges and universities. The organization has people who work in the camps throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East; they help out and go there regularly and offer a program and have these tests and whatnot to do with English proficiency.”

Perritt-Mo’ungaloa says that the process involved is to make sure students are on par when they come to Canada and go to post-secondary here.

“What happens is the organization sends us out four dossiers and the local committee at the schools ranks [from] one to four exactly what student would be best suited for the city and school they are going to,” he says. “The head office makes the final decision after we recommend one to them.”

CCSS external executive Rachael Grant says that the student society supports the collection of the fees from students that help fund the program.

“Surprisingly, I don’t think there were any issues that came up when trying to get the program started,” says Grant. “The referendum went very smoothly; it passed, and Camosun students democratically decided that this was something worth putting fees toward. The program is a very worthy cause, and I’m very excited about it and to be able to bring in a refugee student and give them an opportunity to have an education at Camosun.”

Life on the move

Life in the camps was hard for all the refugees who lived there. They were often living off small amounts of food; the structures in the camps didn’t offer much help, either.

“When the rainy season comes around, you cannot live in houses then,” says Chomba. “The buildings are not in good condition and sometimes the buildings are made of grass so when the rain comes, you cannot go home because the rain ruins the buildings. When I am able, maybe I’d like to donate some money to build new structures. Children used to go to school without eating. There was a program to make porridge; I used to eat a lot of porridge in school and without that porridge it would’ve been difficult for me to survive.”

Chomba didn’t always live in the refugee camp in the Congo—he moved around growing up until he was able to leave the continent and travel to Camosun. Through the help of chauffeurs at airports and with a map in his hand, Chomba managed to leave Africa behind and start college here at Camosun.

“I lived in the Congo until 1994 and then from there I lived in Tanzania in another camp until 2001, when I moved to Malawi [and lived there] until 2016. I did most of my schooling in Malawi because in the camp there is a school that has support from Jesuit Refugee Service. They sponsor most of the big primary and secondary schools in the camp and they provided us with a lot of books and help.”

Chomba had never left Africa before; he had never been on a plane. Travelling across the globe to get to his new home was a completely new, and completely scary, experience for him.

“I travelled from Malawi to South Africa and South Africa to London. Then from London I had to take a plane to Calgary, and then I finally arrived here in Victoria,” he says. “The whole trip was about two days in length and by the time I got here, I was incredibly tired. I got out of the plane in Victoria and wondered to myself where the sun went. I was really nervous the first time I got on the plane. A passenger sitting next to me helped me out and told me not to worry and calmed my nerves a lot.”

Chomba says that he, sadly, didn’t get much of a chance to explore and experience the cities and countries that he travelled by plane to. He was constantly ready to go to his next plane’s gate, just like anyone else getting through multiple flights.

“We didn’t have enough time to look around, really,” he says. “We were just in the airports while we waited for another plane to come. I had an address of where I was going, and at each airport there was someone to pick me up and show me what flight I should catch and where should I go. At each airport the person has a sign and then they take you and maybe buy some food and then help you find your gate.”

Escaping corruption

Perritt-Mo’ungaloa and the crew at Camosun’s WUSC committee aren’t done their work yet. The WUSC committee still provides Chomba with one important thing: friendship. Perritt-Mo’ungaloa says he frequently spends time with Chomba and continues to check up on him and make sure he’s okay; he says he considers Chomba a friend and truly enjoys spending time with him.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” says Perritt-Mo’ungaloa. “Once they get here, you kind of just accommodate them in any way that you can. I really didn’t know how he was going to adapt to living here in Canada, and so far it’s been great, honestly. You know, me and him really connect, and all the committee connects with him really well. We all hang out with him quite often, and with all the support he just seems to be really happy.”

Perritt-Mo’ungaloa says that Chomba isn’t actually alone here in Victoria. Multiple other people that Chomba knew before happen to be living here as well. This was all news to Perritt-Mo’ungaloa, who says that he was grateful to see that Chomba’s transition was an easy one.

“He actually knew a few people when he arrived here in Victoria, people from the refugee camp and that he grew up with that already lived here in Victoria,” says Perritt-Mo’ungaloa. “Just the fact that he does have people he knew when he was growing up and that he does have that quick sense of community, it’s just super nice to know that he does have that here.”

Chomba believes that there are many issues back in Africa that are resulting in hundreds of families losing their loved ones and their homes. The government, as well as disputes between local tribes, all play a big part into the situation there.

“For example, in the Congo, there isn’t much chance for peace there because you have people living differently according to where they live,” says Chomba. “One kind of people live in one town, the next kind of people live in another town, so we have our own tribes there. Each tribe has no love for one another. There is also no peace because the government of Congo; they don’t know how to govern the country in terms of peacemaking. They just love their own job but they don’t love the citizens. For example, if you have places that export gold, you’ll find that the government doesn’t protect them. It’s very difficult for someone to survive. For example, the police, you don’t stop for. They don’t receive a good salary, and when they’re on duty, they could find some rebels or some gangs of people from other countries and help them with transporting things. And because of that, the government doesn’t care; it doesn’t pay well.”

Coming to Canada was more than Chomba could have asked for. With all the hardships he has had to endure and all the struggles he went through, he feels incredibly grateful to the WUSC committee for raising money for him and for recommending him to the WUSC head office.

It was like a dream come true,” he says. “I might not have come here and got what I wanted in life, but [I did] because of the people at the WUSC committee. All the fundraising and campaigning, I hope that it continues for the next student to come. I’d like to see a program where maybe they send some students back to a refugee camp in Africa.”

What happens next?

The WUSC will be a long-term program that lasts well past all of our times at Camosun. They already have plans for the next student to be brought over, likely in September.

“Everything that is afforded to the student in the WUSC program is part of the fee, and that’s just going to be an ongoing thing,” says Grant. “We’ve discussed the possibility of raising the price of the levy to accommodate more than one student per year, but since the program’s in its first year, there’s a lot of learning to do first. We have to set the groundwork first and get a strong support before we can start looking at expanding the program to accommodate another student. From what I’ve learned about WUSC and how they select students in the program, it sounds like they go through a very respectable process; I’ve heard nothing but good things about the program.”

CCSS executive director Michel Turcotte adds that the student refugee program is a four-way partnership between the WUSC, Camosun College, the CCSS, and Camosun students.

“The WUSC club submits the application and provides most of the hands-on integration support; the Camosun students pay the new fee levy; Camosun College provides free tuition and other assistance; the CCSS supplies financial, administration, and other supports,” he says. “Being the first year, there were some challenges, but it was amazing to see the groups and individuals who came together to bring Kabwari to Camosun.”

Perritt-Mo’ungaloa says that this has been one of the most life-changing things that he’s ever done, and says that seeing Chomba happy is one of the best feelings ever.

“It’s changed my life in a lot of ways,” he says. “I went to Camosun not really expecting to be really involved, and just the fact that I threw myself into WUSC and into the student-refugee program, it’s just been so rewarding to work together with all the people who have made this happen and all cooperate together and to know that we are making a difference. To see students who are living in these refugee camps and then are coming to Canada and being super happy like Chomba is, and just to know that the reason they are in Canada and going to school and bettering their lives, it’s just so rewarding to see that. To know you’ve been a part of that has just been so life-changing, and I’ll never forget it, honestly.”

As it does for every student, Chomba’s time at Camosun will come to an end at some point. When the WUSC brings refugee students over, the students are granted permanent residency status by the government of Canada. When they’re done with school, they can choose to do whatever they’d like to do, be it working, travelling, or raising a family. Chomba says that he wants to make a difference in the community and the world.

“Once I complete my four years, then I should find a job here,” he says. “After I find a job I’d like to do donations for my friends back there in the camp, so that they could get assistance and buy books and help children and the orphans there. I’m an orphan, and maybe I could get a program assisting people there that don’t have parents.”

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