Students Give Refugees a Life-changing Chance
During his eight decades, Dr. Al Barnhill has travelled, taught and consulted in more than 80 countries on six continents. From around the globe, he has gained life-shaping experience and knowledge, gleaned from witnessing injustices, strife and the myriad benefits of education.
Originally from Wetaskiwin, Alberta, the value of education was instilled in Al by his father, who had lost his own father as a young boy.
“After Grade 8, Dad had to quit school to provide for his mother and younger brother. When you’re denied something, you value it much more. Dad said many times that, ‘Education is easy to carry.’ He was steadfast in his belief that I not play junior hockey and get an education,” says Al, who went on to earn his PhD in Business Administration.
Generous with his time and knowledge, Al shares stories about playing sports, working in his father’s small-town printing and publishing shop, his post-secondary teaching, serving in the three levels of government in Canada and his decades of international development. He stirs you to think about what’s happening in the world, providing important lessons on the value of teamwork and the desperate need for a shared value system where compassion for others reigns.
Al tells stories of a mother making a dirt tart for her hungry daughter on a road in Armenia, of children scavenging in a Romanian garbage dump and of mothers and children begging on the streets of “developing” countries. He describes teaching in decrepit classrooms without chalk or safe desks for students, visiting handicapped children’s hospitals in several countries and fleeing Zimbabwe after armed fighting broke out.
In one school for severely challenged students, he was greeted with radiant smiles from the children. To the missionary school director Al asked in disbelief, “Why are these sick children so happy? Her answer was simply: ‘because — you — are visiting them.’ Those visits still choke me up!”
Through Al’s stories come a consistent and compelling theme.
“The difference one person can make is profound, but when we combine our efforts with others, the impact is far greater.”
This exact sentiment has been brought to life by students at the University of Lethbridge, and now Al is adding his support to their enormous efforts.
The students, Elise Pundyk, Grace Wirzba and Jamie Lewis, along with faculty member Dr. Anne Dymond, joined efforts with other students and formed a World University Service Canada (WUSC) committee at the U of L. In only four months, they elected an executive and their club grew to more than 70 members. Through bake sales, bottle drives and financial support from ScotiaBank and the U of L International Centre, they raised the $26,000 they would need to bring a refugee student to the U of L for one year.
In the fall 2016, Abdullah Mouslli, a Syrian living in Jordan, began his first year of studies at the U of L. “For me, it’s a life-changing chance,” he said at the time. Abdullah, or Abed as he’s known by, has gone on to become an active member of WUSC and to make a profound difference on campus and in the community by volunteering to help new immigrants, securing his own employment opportunities at both Lethbridge College and the University, and most recently, establishing a social enterprise with other U of L alumni to provide work for Syrian refugee women while bringing the communities together through food.
The WUSC Club spent the next academic year working to make their sponsorship of refugee students a permanent program at the U of L. They took the need to the student body through a referendum and received overwhelming support. By adding a small $2 fee to tuition each semester, U of L students as a collective are bringing a refugee student to the University each year and changing lives for generations to come.
The WUSC students enthusiastically welcomed a second refugee student for the 2018/2019 academic year and continued to forge ahead to make the program sustainable. The need for ongoing funding, however, became pressing.
“Although the student levy fund adequately supports a refugee student through their first year, the subsequent years of the student’s time at the U of L is not funded in a sustainable way,” explains Dr. Anne Dymond, a WUSC faculty advisor. “The WUSC Club and the University Refugee Action Committee have hosted annual fundraising initiatives to cover the cost of tuition, but as the WUSC program fulfills its mandate, more students will come into the University thus requiring more funds to support them. Raising this amount of funds annually will become increasingly challenging.”
The WUSC students are united by a motto: “Education changes the world.” It’s a philosophy Dr. Barnhill shares and is financially supporting.
“The WUSC students are to be highly commended for the work they’ve done,” he says. “So much of what has and is happening in the world is fuelled by ignorance. Education is the antidote to ignorance. The need for education has never been greater. By supporting the program, my hope is that it will continue to grow and that more refugee students will come to the U of L for an education. In turn, they will be able to help others learn and obtain an education. In macroeconomic terms, that is referred to as the multiplier effect.”
Dr. Barnhill has made a significant gift to set up an endowment to help the WUSC student refugees beyond their first year of study at the University.
“My experience is that student refugees are incredibly hard working, motivated and have overcome huge obstacles to seek an education,” he says. “In many cases, they are learning a new culture, even a new language … in addition to their studies. Providing a small amount of financial assistance support while they build their life in Canada is important to their long-term success.”
For the WUSC students, Al’s support is intended to assist in a long journey that is really gaining momentum.
“I am excited about the continuation of this program because of the impact it has on so many lives,” says Elise, one of the U of L students who founded WUSC at the U of L. “It affects not only the refugee students who will benefit and be able to navigate their future differently through increased access to education, but also all the WUSC members who will be touched by the experience of sponsoring a student. The program brings together students of all backgrounds, from all areas of study, under a common purpose. It enables us to truly see how the work we do can make a difference.”
The student levy supports a refugee student through their first year and Al’s donation will provide bursaries to help cover costs in subsequent years of study. To make up the difference, the WUSC committee continues to fundraise and has a gala scheduled for Saturday, April 6 at 5 p.m. at the Lethbridge Multicultural Centre. Tickets are available through the WUSC Facebook page