Forced Migration and Global Citizenship

Why We Need an Educational Paradigm

Faustin Thuyambaze (CC0 1.0) via unsplash
Faustin Thuyambaze (CC0 1.0) via unsplash

I travelled to several West African countries trying to find a "home" away from home with the hope of a speedy return to complete my college education.

By Ahmed Khan

This essay is a reflection on lessons learned from my journey from Sierra Leone as a refugee to being a Canadian immigrant and an international scholar. This transition provided me with an impetus to reflect on my growing identity as a global citizen, connected not only to Sierra Leonean and Canadian ideals, but also actively involved in world development. Indeed, what makes this reflection serendipitous is the concurrent global events on forced migration; ranging from natural disasters to civil upheavals and armed conflicts. In 2014 alone, about 55 million people were reported to be forcibly displaced; the highest number so far according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugee (UNHCR). This figure includes refugees, internally displaced persons, and asylum seekers.

In the absence of effective institutional mechanisms on global migration governance, I posit that the concept of global citizenship holds promise on forced migration issues, humanitarian aid programs, refugee protection, and international partnerships on human security and well-being.

In spite of the migration challenges involved in most conflicts, local and international organizations play a critical role in networking and streamlining resettlement and humanitarian aid. I have been inspired by the fact that some refugees do get lucky enough to be resettled and to rise above their individual hurdles to become global leaders and address pertinent issues. Prominent role models include Michaëlle Jean rising in her career to become the 27th Governor General of Canada in 2005; and Albert Einstein who made groundbreaking scientific discoveries and was awarded the Physics Nobel Prize in 1921. These examples and others have spurred interesting ideas on individual and collaborative contribution to global governance, environmental sustainability and human development.

My forced migration from Sierra Leone to Canada commenced in January 1997 after a civil unrest and political strife. I travelled to several West African countries trying to find a "home" away from home with the hope of a speedy return to complete my college education. I was disappointed that despite similarities in traditions and culture in Western Africa, there were few if any regional initiative to address refugee resettlement and labor market integration. This policy gap has historically led to an influx of refugees and migrants to Europe and North America through various humanitarian and national immigration programs. I finally settled in the Gambia, where I had a hiatus teaching and doing volunteer work with the Food and Agricultural Organization. I eventually applied to immigrate to Canada, a country well known for its values on peace, environmental sustainability, and multiculturalism. My choice for Canada also has a lot to do with historical ties across the Atlantic that connects early black settlers from Nova Scotia (mostly Maroons from Jamaica and the Black Loyalists) that resettled as freed slaves in the British Colonial capital of Freetown – well documented in the Book of Negroes.

The Canadian immigration application often takes years, owing to rigorous national and international security checks, health protocols, and backlogs. Mine was done in collaboration with several international agencies including UNHCR and the International Office of Migration. Unlike many other forced refugees in the Gambia who were assisted through families and church groups, I immigrated to Canada through the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council. The program was made possible through the Resettlement Assistant Program that offers a transition and integration program in collaboration with Citizenship and Immigration Canada. I eventually left Manitoba for British Columbia (BC), after hearing about the mild winters and the beautiful seascape, as well as potential educational opportunities. With my admission to graduate school in BC, I actively got involved in international issues through many campus initiatives events.

My lived experience has contributed to my global view as well as my values relating to migration and integration. I believe both individual and community obligations (in addition to state intervention) are crucial in understanding global migration issues and also in developing partnership in contributing to these problems. Therefore, it is relevant to also know what types of policies and institutions contribute to promoting global citizenship and peace. I was struck by the concept of global citizenship during my graduate studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC), notably a keynote speech by the former president of UBC, Martha Piper in 2002. She emphasized that: "Our goal must be to educate global citizens who see themselves not simply as citizens of a local region, but also as human beings bound to other human beings in ties of concern and understanding".  This framing resonated with me very well, especially after meeting many students, both local and international, who held a common belief in contributing to both their ‘local’ communities and to international or ‘global’ issues. As a member of the UBC’s Global Citizenship Speakers Bureau and Passages to Canada speaker series, I started to explore ideas particularly around refugees and global citizenship.

I will focus on how my student experiences during graduate school with the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), a Canadian non-profit organization, contributed to my perspectives of global citizenship. The WUSC model underscores how student involvement and partnership programs foster education for social change. My first experience with WUSC started with an invitation as a keynote speaker on my refugee and immigration experiences. This opportunity prompted me to ask deeper questions about forced migration in the international context and what it means to be connected to multiple worlds and to share common values. So how did WUSC get involved in global migration discourse? WUSC started as the International Student Services (ISS) by a group of European students interested in helping out student refugees during the First and Second World Wars. As documented by Peterson (2010), ISS had its first Canadian Chapter at the University of Toronto in 1939. As ISS supported refugees in the Middle East and Asia, the name eventually became World University Service in the 1950s with the first Canadian chapter initiated in 1957 . WUSC’s mandates and activities have evolved to include local, national, and international programs in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa (for more information about the programs please see www.wusc.ca).

Notable activities include: the Student Refugee Program (SRP); Shine a Light Campaign for promoting girl education in refugee camps; Bike for Aids in helping HIV patients get access to medical treatment; Fair Trade and Ethical Purchasing; Student without Borders volunteer program, and; the International Summer Seminar that has lasted for more than six decades. In addition to these programs, the Annual General Assembly and International Research Forum provides opportunities for WUSC staff members, volunteers, alumni, students, and global partners to actively engage on international development issues.

One major WUSC program of relevance to global citizenship is the SRP. The program truly transforms student refugees during forced migration to become global citizens through educational opportunities. Starting in the mid-1970s, the SRP was designed to recruit student refugees from around the world, i.e., from ‘refugee camps to university campuses’. Since 2008, about a thousand student refugees have been funded to immigrate to Canada, mostly from Africa, Asia, and Europe. This is one of the most ‘transformative learning’ programs involving forced migration in Canadian history.  The SRP is made possible through partnership with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, contributions from student levy, and various inputs from university administrations and international partners. The program has enhanced Canadian communities in many ways; as demonstrated by growing civic participation and immigrant integration, leadership training and enhancing socio-cultural bridges. Furthermore, some SRP alumni have contributed to both their new home as well as becoming ambassadors to their native countries. Southern Sudan is a good case in point, where former SRP graduates have returned to contribute. Although there is a debate regarding brain drain and brain gain during international migrations , there is evidence to suggest long term benefits to both the home and host country .

Over the years, I have found WUSC to be not only an academic organization but also a social network to share ideas, develop partnerships, and to foster global learning. During my doctoral studies at Memorial University in St. Johns, Newfoundland, many learning programs were developed amongst students, faculty and staff and promoting WUSC’s adage ‘education changes the world’. Since 2009 for instance, the WUSC local Memorial chapter has recruited two student candidates for the International Summer Seminar activities to Southeast Asia and West Africa. Moreover, WUSC Memorial has organized Uniterra funded workshops during the International Development Week on themes such as the Millennium Development Goals. These scholarly opportunities provide a forum for students and faculty to be engaged on international issues and on genuine discourse on the role of higher education in global citizenship.

This perspective on forced migration and global citizenship stems from my personal experience and interactions on how institutions (organizations like WUSC), government policies on immigration and resettlement, and platforms such as (ICTS and social media) do contribute to global citizenship education. I posit that it is the combined "individual" and "institutional" experiences that can contribute to global citizens, and provides the ingredients for curriculum development and public engagement. Personally, I believe that global citizenship can also be understood as an Ubuntu philosophy, a worldview that puts emphasis on the belief that "I am what I am because of who we all are". It fits within an essential paradigm that we live in a global village where moral and ethical responsibilities are fundamental in preserving the web of life . Ignoring this interconnectedness has its consequences, with evidence that links forced migration with natural resource wars , power and tyranny, injustice, and conflicts. Such an educational paradigm does not necessarily focus on addressing forced migration and resettlement programs but also on tackling the root problems of weak governance systems that fester conflicts in the first place. The growing recognition of these challenges can be seen through emerging research agendas on migration and citizenship, labor market reforms, public private partnerships, and coalition of individuals willing to contribute to these issues.  

Regardless of its potential merits and relevance, global citizenship is an elusive concept, and thus presents many practical challenges as to what constitutes best practices or modus operandi. Global citizenship is also a research agenda that deserves further theoretical and empirical analyses. The question for most educators is what type of curriculum and civic education promote an interconnected world? These personal reflections and critical thoughts are meant to be inspiring to refugees and non-refugees alike; and also to provide scholars and practitioners with an opportunity to genuinely collaborate and participate on global citizenship and forced migration discourse.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, Vol. 2 No. 1.

Published in: Global Citizenship. Perspektiven einer Weltgemeinschaft / Roland Bernecker, Roland Grätz (Hg.). – Göttingen: Steidl, 2017. – 192 S. – coming soon