How uOttawa is Taking Action to Support Syrian Refugees in Canada and Around the World

How uOttawa is Taking Action to Support Syrian Refugees in Canada and Around the World
Image by KaGaks Sidibe from Pixabay

The devastating civil war in Syria has resulted in the largest forced migration of people since the Second World War. To date, 13.5 million Syrians are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, including 4.8 million registered refugees and another 6.6 million internally displaced. Those who risk the journey out of Syria face perilous travel, bare existence inside or outside refugee camps, and scant access to fundamental necessities like health care and education.

There has been a global response to these immediate needs, with governments, non-governmental organizations, post-secondary institutions, and private sponsors stepping up to facilitate refugee resettlement and extend support for refugee and host communities. Progress has also been made to challenge discrimination and remove barriers to work so that refugees can reclaim their independence and support themselves.

The University of Ottawa has itself played a part in all of this. In support of Syrians fleeing the war, the University of Ottawa has committed $200,000 and sought donors to match that amount, aiming for a total of $400,000 in new funds to help refugees from Syria and other countries.

But the most important uOttawa response to the Syrian crisis has been generated by the energy and commitment of our faculty, our students, and our administrative personnel. Professors, students, and staff across the campus have found many ways to help, putting their skills and abilities at the service of those desperately in need. The university is immensely proud of their remarkable response and what it says about the humanitarian commitment of our community.

Let me refer to just three of the uOttawa initiatives underway to provide refugee assistance:

The Refugee Sponsorship Support Program (SSP) is expediting the process of sponsoring refugees by matching groups in Canada wanting to sponsor Syrians and other refugees with pro-bono legal help from lawyers and law students trained by the SSP. Headquartered at uOttawa, this national program has trained over 1,300 SSP Pro Bono Lawyers and law students across Canada since its launch on October 1, 2015. The program operates in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, Windsor, Halifax, and New Brunswick, and continues to grow.

Thanks to thousands of volunteer and staff hours, the program is helping sponsorship groups bring more refugees to safety, faster. In Ontario alone, 750 sponsors have attended and received advice at SSP clinics, and more than 160 groups have been matched with lawyers to obtain ongoing, regular assistance in completing private sponsorship applications. Students are also engaging in this project. Over 150 students from ten universities have joined the SSP, and three universities have created dedicated SSP research courses. Here at uOttawa, law students have been trained on refugee sponsorship and work with SSP Pro Bono Lawyers to provide direct assistance to sponsorship groups in completing the application forms. They also conduct research on complex legal issues and produce high-quality memos used by SSP lawyers across Canada.

We continue to build strong relationships with volunteer teams across Canada, local donors and partners, and a growing network of stakeholders. The Refugee Sponsorship Training Program (RSTP) is an important partner, working with the SSP to design and deliver tailored training to lawyers across the country.

The War Refugee Student Scholarships offer students who are refugees of war from around the world financial support in pursuing their undergraduate or graduate studies at uOttawa. We are also working with World University Service of Canada (WUSC) and other organizations to identify eligible Syrian student refugees ready to begin their studies in September 2016. The selection process for four Syrian student refugee candidates is currently underway with WUSC vetting a pool of 19 pre-identified candidates currently living as refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. The university community is excited to welcome these students and continues to raise funds to help with their living costs and other expenses.

The Certificate Program in Community Mobilization in Crisis (CMIC), which we hope to launch in September 2017 in conjunction with the American University of Beirut, will open the door to post-secondary education for refugees and others in Lebanon. According to the United Nations, one out of every three people in Lebanon is a refugee and another is equally in need. In a context of highly competitive and constrained employment and educational access, our program will bring individuals from refugee and host communities together to build their own social enterprise start-ups, so the benefits can be felt by all.

Graduates of the program would be awarded a University of Ottawa certificate, but more importantly, would have acquired the language, critical thinking, academic, entrepreneurial, and life skills needed to succeed in their own innovative initiatives. All our students would be offered community service learning placements and would gain networks and tangible skills and recognition for their work and ideas. Joining diverse groups at the end of the program, these teams would apply for seed grant funding to continue their groundbreaking initiatives and advocacy, for and across their communities.

Providing opportunities for higher education is our immediate goal, but the potential lasting social impact extends much further.


Post-secondary institutions have an integral role to play in the global response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Access to education is essential to the positive and successful resettlement and integration of refugees displaced by the ongoing conflict in Syria. If you are interested in helping, I encourage you to make a donation.

The admirable effort of all those on campus who have worked to contribute these solutions to one of the world’s most pressing problems also highlights something else. Harnessing our own strengths and creativity not only helps Syrian refugees, it also points the way to a brighter future for Canada as a whole. As Governor General David Johnston put it, the Syrian refugee crisis is “a defining moment for Canada.” Those who rise to the challenge inspire us all.

Allan Rock is president of the University of Ottawa and a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations.

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