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May 28, 2015

Laurier student Hippolyte Mugisha has much to celebrate – he is graduating in June with a BA and looking forward to pursuing a master’s degree in economics in September. For any 21-year-old, that alone would be plenty to celebrate. But Mugisha’s convocation ceremony will mean more than most of us can imagine.

The native Rwandan came to Laurier four years ago from a refugee camp in Malawi. He arrived on campus with minimal knowledge of Western life and had, at the time, just learned how to turn on a computer.

On June 11, he will cross the stage at Laurier’s spring convocation with a spot on the Dean’s Honour Roll and a BA in Economics and Financial Management.

*   *   *

Mugisha was born in 1993 in Rwanda, the second of five children and the eldest son. His parents were both well educated – his father an engineer, his mother a school teacher.

A year after Mugisha was born, the Rwandan genocide tore apart the African country and displaced his family from their home.

“My mom lost a lot of family,” he says. “She doesn’t like to talk about it so much. My parents try to forget.”

Over the next eight years his parents worked hard to keep the family safe and to provide their children with every opportunity to succeed. But in July of 2002, when Mugisha was nine, the growing danger within Rwanda forced the family to flee the country and journey to Malawi in search of safety.

“We had nothing with us, things were happening so fast,” he says. “As a kid it was hard for me to interpret what was happening. We had some food and my dad was always telling us to be strong and my mom was telling us not to worry. They wouldn’t tell us what was going on. My sisters were scared. My mom was telling me to ‘be a man and take care of your sisters.’”

Hidden by the night and using back roads, Mugisha’s family crossed the border from Rwanda into Tanzania and then took public transit to Malawi. When they arrived in Malawi, they registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and were driven to a refugee camp.

“That was the beginning of a new life, in less than a week,” Mugisha says. “I had no idea what life would be like in a refugee camp. I was just like anybody else – it was something I had only seen in movies. When I realized this was going to be our life, I thought I was going to die.”

The camp was filled with people from Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Congo and Ethiopia. They were refugees from war and the 1994 Rwandan genocide; some had been there for 12 years.

The biggest shock for Mugisha was the difference in culture and adjusting to the local Malawian language, Chichewa. His family moved into a one-room house, a dramatic difference from their comfortable home in Rwanda. It was a difficult time, with food and resources in short supply.

“As children you can see when parents are stressed,” Mugisha says. “All the things my dad worked for in his life – studying hard in school to get scholarships, his university degree — he lost everything. You could see in his eyes something was wrong.”

Mugisa’s family managed to get by as best they could. Mugisha and his siblings attended school, found friends, and welcomed a new little brother who was born in 2005.

After finishing high school in 2009, Mugisha wanted to attend university like his father. But he was not allowed to attend university in Malawi and could not return to Rwanda.

The World University Service of Canada (WUSC) offers refugees an opportunity to get a university education in Canada through the Student Refugee Program (SRP). Students must meet certain criteria to apply and have the capacity to study in French or English.

“The Student Refugee Program took about 20 students that year,” says Mugisha. “I got accepted. It was the best moment of my life. We had no phone or email or Facebook, so they posted the names near the UNHCR post and every day you had to go and check if there was anything new. I cried when I saw my name. It was hard to believe. The first time I checked I didn’t see my name, but I looked again and it was there. Right then, it was life-changing.”

Being accepted into the program meant a year-long process of tests, interviews and courses intended to prepare him for the next four years of his life.

*   *   *

There are 65 universities in Canada that participate in the Student Refugee Program. Each has a local committee to select the students they feel would fit best with the university, and each university must have money in place to sponsor their chosen students for up to one year.

At Laurier, the university’s international office works with students to operate the local WUSC committee. Each year Laurier sponsors two refugee students, one on each campus. A unique aspect of the Laurier program is that the student body supports the Student Refugee Program (SRP) through a special levy that sponsors the refugee students for their entire four years.

“The challenges students from the SRP program have had to overcome to qualify to participate in the program remind us that, for much of the world, education is a luxury, not an automatic right,” says Anna Choudhury, senior international student advisor at Laurier International. “It is imperative that SRP students are given the support to integrate and be successful in their transition to life and studies in Canada. This is something that we are privileged to do, with the help of our WUSC student committee.”

The Laurier WUSC committee reviewed the results from the applicants’ Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), their high school marks, and their top three programs of interest to determine if the student would be a fit with the university. They selected Mugisha as their top choice.

“I didn’t know how to compare schools, all I wanted was to come to university,” he says. “I was just excited to start a new life and continue my education.”

Mugisha began taking courses in “Canadian life” and started learning about a lifestyle he had never known, from learning to turn on a computer to opening a Facebook account (he had three friends at first) and learning what “Tim Hortons” is.

The courses, however, could never truly prepare him for what was about to happen.

For most students born and raised in Canada, the transition to university is difficult. Moving away from home, meeting new friends, managing money, and adjusting to heavier courseloads is enough to overwhelm any 18-year-old. For Mugisha, the transition was amplified by the fact that he was completely alone in a new country and an alien culture that did not speak or write in his native language.

Moving from a refugee camp in Malawi to Laurier, and then jumping right into Laurier International’s Orientation Week celebrations, was startling to say the least.

“It was hard for me to fit into the O-Week environment,” Mugisha recalls. “The way students were dancing and the songs they sung, I didn’t know them. Their conversation wasn’t making sense to me. When they were talking about Starbucks, I just didn’t understand. Someone asked me, ‘Do you want pizza and what kind of pizza do you want?’ and I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what that was. That was the first time I ever had pizza. I felt disconnected.”

Mugisha had expected his life to change for the better, but things turned out to be more perplexing than he ever imagined. All of a sudden he had whole new world of movies, video games, sports, music, parties and Internet surfing at his fingertips. It was exciting, yet he felt so confused.

“I thought I was going to be in trouble after the first year, it was the most intense year of my life. I sat in my residence room thinking, ‘This is crazy, I’m going to fail school.’ Nothing was making sense. And your parents are calling you and they expect you to be living this beautiful life, but you’re in this room by yourself and nobody understands what is going on with you.”

*   *   *

The Laurier WUSC committee continued to help Mugisha transition and after a few months things were smoother. He made friends who were focused on doing well in school and he tried his best to move forward by accepting his new life. The close-knit community at Laurier and encouragement from professors inspired him to work harder and find balance.

Mugisha says one economics professor, Houman Mortazavi, believed in him even when he was struggling, which was particularly important in improving Mugisha’s outlook. For his part, Mortazavi says Mugisha’s passion and commitment stood out.

“I saw the spirit of hard work and passion in Hippo, which are the ingredients of success,” says Mortazavi. “I tried to help Hippo discover the real potential inside him and to trust his own talent, and I knew it would be the gate that leads to future accomplishments. I am proud of him.”

In his third year, Mugisha made the Dean’s Honour Roll for the first time. In his fourth year, he received an A+ on his final thesis paper – it was one of the proudest moments in his life.

“When I made it on the Dean’s Honour Roll, it was unbelievable. I had some friends get on the list and I said to them, ‘I don’t know how you feel about this, but I feel like I am at Harvard right now!’ A lot of students make it onto the Honour Roll, but it still felt great.”

Mugisha will soon apply for Canadian citizenship, something he is very excited about. He says his favourite thing about being Canadian is the opportunity to be your own person and to have the opportunity to succeed.

“In Canada, hard work pays off. There’s no excuse in Canada not to do what you want.”

Mugisha’s advice to young people, especially those in difficult circumstances, is to think positively and stay focused.

“The combination of adjusting to Canadian life and university life is hard. There is a lot I still don’t know, and every day I learn a lot. You have to stay focused and have a goal and work towards it. Try to know your balance — fun things can always wait until the summer.”

Sharing his story has been a liberating experience for Mugisha. During his time in Malawi he hid his refugee status out of fear and embarrassment. After living in Canada for four years, he has discovered that his story is what makes him unique, and sharing it has helped him accept himself.

“Telling my story is freeing. I can be myself.”

Mugisha will graduate on Thursday, June 11, at 2 p.m. in the Athletics Complex on Laurier’s Waterloo campus. His family in Malawi, whom he hasn’t seen since coming to Laurier in 2011, plans to view the ceremony via live-streaming over the Internet.

About the WUSC Student Refugee Program

The WUSC Student Refugee Program (SRP) is the only youth-to-youth sponsorship program in the world, and the only program that combines refugee resettlement with higher education. Since 1978, the SRP has resettled and educated nearly 1,500 refugees and engaged over 100 tertiary institutions in the program. While the SRP provides refugee youth with a solution to prolonged displacement and an opportunity to pursue their education, the unique model also gives Canadian students a chance to learn about global issues and forced migration, while developing valuable cross-cultural and leadership skills as they support the newcomer students on their campus.


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