Soomaya Javadi in front of the UN last year when she gave a speech on the situation of Afghanistan under the Taliban control (Photo submitted).
Soomaya Javadi in front of the UN last year when she gave a speech on the situation of Afghanistan under the Taliban control. (Photo: Submitted)

New fund gives hope to refugees starting over at USask

The Refugee Student Empowerment Fund aims to remove barriers for refugees embarking on their academic journey in a new country.

By Darla Read

Soomaya Javadi’s life as she knew it changed on August 15, 2021.

“I saw on a telegram news channel that the Taliban had taken control of the presidential building in Kabul,” she recalled.

Javadi and her brother gathered all their books and buried and burned them in their backyard.

“I buried and burned around 500 books that night,” she shared. “At 4 am, I was lying beside my empty bookcase in the darkness and felt as if I were buried along with my books.”

Javadi was on the verge of graduating from dentistry when Kabul fell to the Taliban. As an educated woman – as is her mother, who is a midwife – as well as being part of the persecuted Hazara ethnicity, “our identities were fundamentally against the Taliban’s misogynistic ideology.”

In the following months, Javadi watched as women were banned from parks, recreational areas, workplaces, and restaurants, and then women were not allowed to leave the home without a male companion.

Men were not immune to the threat of violence, though, and Javadi feared for her father, a journalist.

When the Taliban took control, “there were photos of journalists beaten up and tortured all over social media. I was terrified for my dad’s security,” she recalled.

Soomaya Javadi in front of the UN last year when she gave a speech on the situation of Afghanistan under the Taliban control (Photo submitted).
Soomaya Javadi in Afghanistan before the Taliban took control. (Photo: Submitted)

She and her family spent the next month travelling across Afghanistan, searching for a way out. Memories of that time haunt her as very bleak: she had to wear a long black hijab to avoid attention, and she couldn’t imagine any kind of future.

However, one question kept popping up in her mind: “Will I allow the Taliban to define me and my future? Or will I fight for my existence with everything I have?”

That’s where 30 Birds Foundation came in. Javadi and her family were among more than 400 refugees from Afghanistan who escaped to Canada with the foundation’s help. Until she arrived here, Javadi had never heard of Saskatoon and very little about Canada.

“When we landed in Saskatoon, my first thought was, ‘How can I go back to school?’”

In her first months in Saskatoon, USask staff and faculty volunteers with the Refugee Student Support Network, led by Dr. Andrew Ireson (PhD) and Wenona Partridge and founded in response to needs expressed by refugees from Afghanistan, reached out to Soomaya and other refugees. A meeting followed with USask Provost and Vice-President Academic, Dr Airini.

“We had the opportunity to share our experiences (with university leaders, faculty and staff). My main concern was that we, girls from Afghanistan, had abandoned our homes to be free to continue our education, and if we could not do that because of financial barriers, all our sacrifices would be for nothing.”

It was through this close-knit network of people on campus that Javadi learned about the Refugee Student Empowerment Fund.

Resettled refugees may face significant barriers when it comes to pursuing or continuing post-secondary education in Canada. For students like Javadi, these can include the inability to access transcripts and proof of degree from Taliban-controlled institutions in Afghanistan or university-aged refugees bearing full financial responsibility for younger siblings and their non-English speaking parents, making normal student loan amounts woefully insufficient to cover the true cost of study.

Thus, the Refugee Student Empowerment Fund was created. The fund is available both to undergraduate and graduate applicants, and USask is currently committed to supporting successful students for two years. Students receive $10,000 in their first year and another $10,000 in their second year. Ten awards are available for the 2024/25 academic year, and individuals can apply for the $10,000 awards as soon as they’ve started their application for admission process, even before they get admitted.

"By uplifting and empowering talented individuals who have resettled in Saskatchewan, we are investing in our communities and recognizing that some journeys in higher education may become interrupted for reasons that are outside of people’s control,” noted Pirita Mattola, senior director, Student Engagement and Academic Success. “My hope is that this fund can alleviate some of the financial pressures felt by resettled refugees and that it can provide hope that studying in our university is within reach.”

The fund made a significant impact on Javadi’s personal and academic life. During her first year at USask, she had to work up to 40 hours a week while taking five courses, including two labs. She had to take out a student loan while also supporting her family. All of this was on top of the mental and emotional toll of dealing with their harrowing experiences under the Taliban and leaving their home country.

“I still had language barriers and my average was not nearly high enough to even think about dental school.”

In her second year, with assistance from the fund, Javadi raised her average by 8.75 per cent. She could work less and “savour” the learning experience.

“I took two courses this spring and biked to campus almost every day. I sat in my favourite spot in the Leslie and Irene Dubé Health Sciences Library near the large windows and studied for hours, immersing myself with the joy, hope, and sun when it was there.”

Because Javadi’s studies from Afghanistan are not transferable here, she is majoring in health studies with an intention to apply to dentistry again. She hasn’t given up hope, and a fire has been lit inside of her.

“The whole world has given up on Afghanistan and has abandoned it to the Taliban. In other words, they have given up on every Afghanistani girl inside those borders. Therefore, I believe it is us who must not give up on ourselves,” shared Javadi. “If we persist for long enough, endure the challenges, setbacks, and keep pushing forward, we will find meaning, happiness, and fulfilment even when we struggle. We will inspire others, and someday we might be the change that we all want to see in this world.”

Students wishing to apply for this funding should visit the Scholarships and Bursaries channel in PAWS, click the green “Apply” button, and select the “Refugee Student Empowerment Fund” application from the entering student drop-down menu. Applicants need to provide proof of their refugee status and submit a statement on how the bursary will help them complete their degree and attain their educational goals. The deadline to apply is July 15.

Together we will support and inspire students to succeed. We invite you to join by supporting current and future students' needs at USask.