Syrian Student Association Wants Concordia Refugee Resource Centre

Question Seeking Student Approval to Appear in Next CSU General Election

Members of the Syrian Student Association at a bake sale. Photo Kinan Swaid

Lately, Concordia’s Syrian Students’ Association’s email account has been overflowing with messages.

“Just today before I came in, someone sent, ‘Hey I’m a new refugee here—I have a lot of questions about Concordia,’” said Kinan Swaid, president of the SSA.

Admittedly, Swaid says he and his small team don’t have all the answers to the many important questions people have about properly settling in Montreal.

To provide better support for thousands of Syrian refugees in the city and at Concordia, Swaid and over 700 students want to see the creation of a refugee resource centre using student money.

Since Jan. 1, 2015, there have been 1,947 privately sponsored Syrian refugees who have come to Montreal.

Swaid said the centre’s goal will be to fully integrate refugees, including the thousands of people from Syria, to live and succeed in Canada.

“Refugee crises are happening all the time,” he commented. “We’re trying to create a system where we’re always prepared at Concordia.”

During the exam period last semester, Swaid said the SSA collected over 700 student signatures on a petition gauging interest to create a resource centre for refugees, in response to the ongoing Syrian crisis.

Since they surpassed the 500-signature threshold, a question formally asking if students support this idea will go to referendum in the forthcoming Concordia Student Union general election, which has yet to be announced. The centre will need $0.37 per credit from every student to operate, according to Swaid.   

“I think it’s an incredible initiative,” said CSU General Coordinator Terry Wilkings.

He added that the rapid mobilization shows that there’s a lot of interest from students in tangibly supporting Syrian refugees. The Chief Electoral Officer of the upcoming elections will have final authority on how the question will be presented at polling stations, according to Wilkings.  

While Swaid stated the centre won’t turn anyone down, its main focus will be on assisting student refugees—the first to specifically focus on doing so in Montreal.

The centre will provide services such as tutoring in subjects like languages and math, as well as information on immigration, healthcare, and academia, according to Swaid.  

Another priority is helping refugees find work.

“The first step for a refugee to feel at home is for them to make their own money,” Swaid said, adding that the centre will also provide an entrepreneurial program to possibly help refugees start their own business or app.

A constitution has already been drafted and will be reviewed by the CSU policy committee, Swaid said, adding that the collected fee-levy money will go toward paying a full-time staff, financing bursaries and potentially purchasing affordable housing property for refugee students.

If the question passes, the centre will find a headquarter space close to the downtown campus, although it hasn’t been determined yet, Swaid said, joking that the SSA office is too small.

Not waiting for the centre

Regardless of whether the question passes or not, Swaid said the SSA will continue to assist Syrian refugees. Last semester, the student association raised $7,414 to bring more Syrian refugee students to Concordia, mostly through bake sales in the Hall building.

Concordia Chancellor Jonathan Wener, the Concordia physics department and the university itself previously announced they’ll sponsor students from the Al-Salam school in Turkey. Their sponsorships will only cover tuition, so the Syrian Kids Foundation—a Canadian-based charity—will cover all their living expenses.

The cost of sponsoring one refugee to live in the city for a year is approximately $12,000, according to Swaid.

With the money from the bake sales and donations from other initiatives around the city, Swaid says they raised approximately $24,000.

A Syrian Refugee Fund has also been set up through Concordia’s FundOne program in collaboration with the SSA. Similar to a KickStarter campaign, donors can put money toward school bursaries specifically for Syrian refugees, according to Sophie Johnson, from the university’s Advancement and Alumni Relations office.

“The people that are already here are safe,” Swaid said. “They need money to go to school.”

Both part-time and full-time Syrian refugee students from any program will be eligible for these bursaries, Johnson added. This fund will hopefully go live in two weeks, she said.     

On top of this initiative, the SSA is holding a campaign called, “#WelcomeSyrians – A Thousand Baskets of Love.” The aim is to collect basic items like diapers and canned goods to be distributed in gift baskets to Syrian refugees throughout Montreal.

The campaign will last until the end of February, and drop-bins are located within the library buildings at both campuses.