A Sudanese refugee student turns the page on a tragic youth
for a new start in life.
JOK GAI IS FITTING IN. IN HIS FIRST YEAR OF ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING studies, he’s a typical student in a lot of ways. He lives on campus in cluster housing, enjoys sports and games, hangs out with friends and attends his share of parties. He’s got a part-time job. But there’s a difference.
Jok Gai is from Sudan. When he was 10 years old he witnessed the murder of his parents. In fact, the country’s brutal 20-year civil war claimed most of his family. He is one of three survivors in a family of eight. A childhood that began with hope became a desperate youth spent in the United Nations’ Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, along with 90,000 others. The camp, with its food-rationing, crowds, poor healthcare and constant threat of violence, proved even worse than his war-torn home. In 2003, 14 of his friends were killed when the camp was raided by members of a neighbouring Kenyan community.
There didn’t seem like much of a future, little chance of putting to use his natural affinity for mathematics or the English language skills he developed through his school years. Then he got his big break.
The World University Service of Canada and its Student Refugee Program brings dozens of people like Gai to Canada each year. Gai was selected by a group of UVic students working with the WUSC. Funding from the student fees and the university will support his first year of tuition and accommodation.
“I was open-minded about coming here,” says Gai, who is instantly likeable. During a photo session at the Student Union Building for this story, several students either say hi or stop to chat. “I didn’t find (living here) hard. The most difficult part of the transition was the classes.”
The class work has been going better in second term and his biggest budget challenge is to manage the cost of his long-distance phone calls back to Africa. Sudan is a place he would like to go back to, but for now that return is a long way off. His sights are set on completing his degree and pursuing a master’s.
Ashley Heaslip is the UVic coordinator of WUSC and has known Gai since he first set foot in Canada. “Jok is truly amazing. His energy and smile are so resilient that I sometimes forget what he’s been through in his 25 years of life,” says Heaslip. After she graduates this spring, Heaslip intends to travel to Kakuma as part of her long-term plans to work with refugees and the displaced.
Heaslip is heartened by the results in March of a student referendum in which students overwhelmingly approved (by a margin of five to one) a dramatic increase in the amount they pay to the students’ society to support student refugees. Up until now, only one refugee student was brought to UVic every two years. With the approved fee increase to $1.50 per term from 50 cents, two refugee students every year will be sponsored. The university administration has also started contributing $10,000 each year to the program.
But, as Heaslip will remind you, more support is always needed. While UVic is improving, it lags behind what other universities offer for something that benefits more than just the refugee student. “(Sponsored students) are incredibly important to UVic,” says Heaslip. “Their perspective enriches classes and conversations. They are what resilience and determination looks like on a face-to-face level.”
At 25, Gai is enjoying his new life, far removed from bloodshed and the sources of past heartbreak. He carries with him a simple philosophy about the fortunate twists of fate and those horribly bad ones: “Things just work out.”