Getting Woke at Dadaab Refugee Camp and Other Life Lessons: A WUSC Student’s Journey to Canada

27 Feb Getting Woke at Dadaab Refugee Camp and Other Life Lessons: A WUSC Student’s Journey to Canada

Growing up in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, Ahmad Mohamed – a Somali Refugee – studied his way into a World University Service of Canada Sponsorship at the University of Toronto. Along the way, he takes a plane for the first time, is greeted by an exuberant welcome wagon, and learns a few things about love he might not have expected to.

Ahmed Mohamed

WUSC Sponsorship Program Student
Somalian children attend class at Dadaab refugee Camp in 2004.

“No means no” is one of the quotes I remember from my Canadian orientation sessions by Idle Gure, the IOM-COA facilitator. That was about two years ago but it still rings in my mind. Was it meant to be a funny comment? Or a fact? Chances are it was both.

It was August 2015 when I attended the three-day Canadian orientation in Nairobi as part of the resettlement process. It was with mixed feelings, being both happy and sad, that I attended the session. It was the final stage before my travel to Canada. I would soon arrive in Canada and join my dream university. On the other hand, it was very sad to think that I would be thousands of kilometers away from my loved ones. I knew that I would soon miss the place where I had taken refuge and lived for more than a decade.

By the time I attended the COA session, I started experiencing nostalgia. Memories of those good days with my Kenya classmates and teachers flashed in my mind. One of them was something that happened in my final year of high school. Our literature teacher, Ms. Situma, was teaching us “Against Pleasure Principle”, a short story from Half a Day and Other Short Stories. At one point, she drew the female reproductive part to explain Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) which was an essential theme in the story. Though she drew it in a somehow unclear manner, we all understood what she was referring to.

“Madam, is this the World Cup trophy?” I joked, making the whole class burst with laughter.

I would soon be separated from those familiar faces and go into a world that I knew nothing about. It was very emotional but I had to fight back my apprehension and think of how hard I had struggled to get such an opportunity to further my studies in Canada as part of the WUSC Student Sponsorship Program.

With about twenty other classmates from all over Dadaab Refugee Camps, we sat in the grass thatched room in the IOM compound.  Our COA facilitator, Idle Gure, stood beside the whiteboard with a marker in his hand. Next to the board hung the red and white Canadian flag. After introducing our names and what our expectations of Canada were, Mr. Gure started the orientation. He gave us a brief introduction of Canada’s history, its demography and geography, the dominant cultures and beliefs, the provinces and their capital cities as well as the systems of education and employment. He then paused and asked if we had questions. We asked many questions, including some about the weather and how one is expected to behave in Canada, all of which he answered in detail. He also asked us some questions.

“If you propose a lady in Canada and she refuses, what would you do?” he asked.

We threw out a variety of answers. Some said they would keep on trying and never give up. This was in line with the Somali way of proposing to a girl.  In Somali culture, a lady never agrees on the first-time proposal of marriage even if she loves the proposer. It is viewed as a sign of being desperate and demeaning to her dignity as well as that of her family. It is also a way of verifying whether that guy is serious about the relationship. The man must be patient and repeat his request over and over again. It could take months, or even years, before his proposal is accepted.  The COA facilitator explained that the same story would play differently in Canada and that any follow up after a rejection could amount to coaxing and sexual assault.

“No means no”, he repeated, now with our full attention.

Mr. Gure also explained the travel process, since it was all our first time travelling by plane. He talked about the safety measures and the appropriate procedures to follow if something were to go wrong. He finally advised us to stay positive and focused, and to persevere over challenges like culture shock, homesickness, and financial constraints that we were likely to face in our new country. With all of this advice and much more, we came to the end of the orientation, and gave Mr. Gure our last goodbye after taking some group photos with him.

After a week or so, we set out on our journey to Canada, which started with the IOM bus from Dadaab to Nairobi, and by plane from there on. As the Kenyan Airways plane took off from JKA in Nairobi, I felt like hugging everyone I was leaving behind, even the strangers! But we were already thousands of feet in the air.

After twenty-three hours or so, we arrived at Pearson International Airport, in Toronto, where I said goodbye to some familiar faces from home as they were headed to other parts of the country.

At the terminal, I saw a group of young boys and girls holding up a poster with my name on it. They were the WUSC team from my campus! Everyone ran to hug me when they realized it was me. Their excitement and radiant faces made me feel at home. They soon took me to the campus where I was given the key to my house.

“You must be very tired Ahmed, get some rest and we’ll take you on a tour around the campus tomorrow. Let’s know if you need anything”.

On the following Monday, I attended my first class. It was the second lecture since I was late by one week. I understood very little of what the professor was saying because I wasn’t familiar with his accent. I felt that everyone was so bright, except for me. I started reading the lecture slides and the textbook, cramming every single concept. When we did our midterm test for economics, I was upset with an 88% until the professor announced that only twenty-five percent of the class got an A.

I am currently a third-year in co-op Management and IT at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. I managed to stay competitive throughout these past years here. I was able to connect with people of different backgrounds and professions, including professors, classmates and workmates. I became a teaching assistant for different courses within my first two years of undergraduate school, something that many tell me is unusual due to the high competition for such positions. I was also able to join a co-op management program which is very competitive and hard to get into.

I don’t think all these achievements would have been possible without the pre-departure orientation and pieces of advice given to us by IOM-COA staff as well as the support of my local WUSC committee. I have been happy to see how much of what our COA facilitator told us about Canada has come to life around me, especially the cultural diversity, the weather patterns, and how to handle challenges. It is something I really appreciate as it gave me an understanding of Canada – something other international students, from other countries, did not have the opportunity to get prior to their departure.

My advice to those coming here is to come with a positive mind. Studying in Canada is both challenging and rewarding, and it’s all about fair competition. I would like to emphasize the importance of being positive and determined. If one was able to do well in unfavourable situations, like in remote refugee camps, such as Dadaab, with little learning or resources, there is no reason why they should not excel in well-equipped institutions in Canada.

Safe Journey to Canada!

Ahmed