Former refugee aims to help others

NANAIMO – Former refugee now co-chairman of VIU’s World University Service of Canada committee.

By Marilyn Assaf

Education changes the world – just ask Vancouver Island University student Aden Ahmed.

Ahmed spent 18 years in Kenya’s Dadaab complex, a sprawling site made up of three overcrowded camps that are home to almost half a million African refugees.

Three years ago, he arrived in Nanaimo as a sponsored refugee student thanks to VIU’s World University Service of Canada (WUSC) local committee, a group of globally minded students and faculty who want to make a difference.

Today, Ahmed is thriving as a landed immigrant in Canada, working diligently toward his bachelor of business administration degree at VIU. He is giving back to the community by serving as co-chairman of VIU’s WUSC committee.

“My life mission is helping other refugees,” he said. “I want to give them hope.”

Ahmed’s life today is in stark contrast to his upbringing in northeastern Kenya. As a young child, he moved to the refugee camp with two older sisters when his mother, father and older brother were killed in a single day during political unrest in Somalia.

Food rations were handed out every 15 days. Ahmed remembers refugees lining up for three hours or more to get 10 litres of drinking water, three kilograms of maize and wheat flour and oil.

“That usually lasted about six days,” he recalls. “My sister kept us alive by selling firewood or doing odd jobs to get extra food.”

Ahmed enrolled in the camp’s elementary school, and learned quickly that education would be his only chance to change his life. He finished Grade 8 with 1,000 other students  but only 120 with the highest marks were allowed to attend a secondary school sponsored by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Ahmed was one of them.

“My principal helped me so much,” he said. “I will never forget his kindness. He often told me that he could see a bright future inside of me.”

After Grade 12, Ahmed began working as a primary teacher at the refugee camp. Together with community leaders, United Nations officials and a donor who contributed $137,000, he helped create a secondary school in Dadaab to help hundreds of students continue their high school education.

Ahmed heard about WUSC and applied to continue his university education in Canada. He was thrilled to get a letter in June 2010 informing him that he was one of about 60 refugee students sponsored by WUSC committees on campuses across the country.

VIU’s small WUSC local committee, established in 2008-09, has sponsored six student refugees so far.

Committee volunteers hold several fundraising events throughout the year, including the Harambee Gala Dinner on Saturday (April 27) to raise additional money to support student refugees.

Ahmed, meanwhile, is forever grateful for continuing support he receives from WUSC members, VIU employees and Nanaimo families who have hosted him in their homes and helped him adapt to living in Canada.

“I cannot express how grateful I am for all the people who have helped me,” says Ahmed. “For the first time in my life, I feel the love of parents, a real mom and dad who love me and take care of me. I feel really comfortable asking for their advice about anything. I have a home to go to on occasions like Christmas time just like any other kid.”

For information about the Student Refugee Program, and other WUSC initiatives, please go to To purchase tickets for the April 27 Harambee fundraiser, please contact by e-mail or call 250-797-5749 or 250-505-4950.

Tickets are $55 for community members and $40 for students. All proceeds go to sponsorship of the incoming refugee students at VIU.