Winders: Opportunity today to shape our tomorrow

Paul Mayne // Western News

After spending most of his journalism career in The States, most recently as executive editor of the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald, Winders joined Western’s Masters in Environment and Sustainability program in 2009, and then the Western News as its editor in 2010.

Lost in the politics of this moment, an opportunity of historic proportions awaits. My question: What university will be the first to seize it?

We all know the numbers. The Syrian conflict has killed an estimated quarter of a million people in the last four years. Half of Syrians have been forced from their homes, creating more than 4 million refugees and displacing nearly 8 million people within the country. The situation has sparked a mass refugee crisis across the Middle East and Europe.

But the world is responding – finally.

In Canada, the Trudeau government initially vowed to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. That timeline was extended to February. Late last month, the government further indicated Canada may be willing to accept 35,000-50,000 refugees, with 70 per cent from Syria. Canada welcomed its 10,000th refugee on Tuesday.

London expects more than 800 government-sponsored Syrian refugees in a first wave of resettlements. More will follow.

These are numbers that, over time, will shape the face of communities and institutions.

These are not the first refugees welcomed by this great country. Nor will they be the last. Previous groups shaped this country in important ways; we expect no less from the latest. Admittedly, those previous groups were not met with the outpouring of national pride and support we have seen in recent weeks. That might cause some bitterness. But we cannot let past missed opportunities cloud a brighter future.

As this drama has played out on television, I have wondered what role universities will play in this great migration. Our short-term response has been wonderful – raising funds to sponsor families, offering safe haven to scholars and students. But what of the long-term opportunities?

If our universities desire to be ‘international,’ if we are looking to diversify our ranks beyond the handful of usual areas the sector already heavily recruits from, if we truly view this pursuit as something greater than a necessary revenue stream, then let’s start building tomorrow with those arriving in our cities today.

For our colleagues in primary and secondary school systems, the moment is not so much an opportunity, as it is survival. The wave of new students entering some systems, Thames Valley District School Board included, will inject new life, new experiences into our classrooms, but there are monumental challenges of language, of previous attainment, of emotional readiness to be addressed.

Our advantage, however, is time. Not everyone has that.

Most of these children will not be university age for a few years. How will we use that time?

We are welcoming a new generation we never expected to arrive. Who will be the first university to reach out to refugee families in their communities and guarantee a place for their kids, if they meet the grade requirements?

Last month, our first student arrived on the Syrian Refugee Student Awards. Who will be the first university to make programs for global refugees like that a permanent part within their institution?

One would guess these families need more than the warm coat they received at the airport. Who will be the first university to take the lead and tell government officials that these new members of our society need opportunities to integrate fully through postsecondary education?

The first university to seize this moment will help shape the future of their campus and the face of Canada, as well. It will be fascinating to see who takes the lead.