Living like a refugee

- June 12, 2008

Julia Keech, Yong Jacob Deng
WUSC volunteer Julia Keech is embarking on a trip to Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya. It's where Dal engineering student Yong Jacob Deng lived prior to coming to Halifax last August. (Danny Abriel Photo)

Julia Keech loves to tell people where she’s from—tiny Grand Pre in the Annapolis Valley. But since enrolling at Dalhousie, her world keeps expanding.

Taking advantage of Dalhousie’s study abroad opportunities, she studied Spanish in Cuba on the Cuba Study Tour in the spring of 2005. Then last year, she spent a term in Dakar, Senegal improving her French.

And now the International Development Studies student is about to embark on her biggest challenge yet: she’s one of eight undergraduate students and two faculty advisors from across Canada who will live, learn and volunteer in a refugee camp in Kenya.

The six-week trip is a learning opportunity arranged through World University Services Canada (WUSC). Each year, Dalhousie students support two student refugees to come and live at the university; across the country, WUSC is getting ready to welcome its 1,000th student refugee to arrive since initiating its Student Refugee Program 30 years ago.

“We’ll be meeting the students in Kenya before they come to Canada and gaining a real understanding of the difficulties they’ve faced,” says Ms. Keech, 23, who became involved with WUSC during her first year at Dalhousie. “After, we’ll be able to bring our experiences overseas back to the local committee.”

Julia Keech needs to raise $3,000 to participate in WUSC’s student refugee seminar. If you’d like to contribute, e-mail Julia at JL250871@DAL.CA.
She’s excited and nervous about the trip. Chosen through a national competition, Ms. Keech and the seven other volunteers will have a few days of orientation at York University and in Nairobi, before traveling to either Kakuma or Dadaab refugee camps. Ms. Keech is bound for Kakuma, a large dusty camp of some 60,000 people.

Located in the northwestern region of Kenya, life in Kakuma has been described as “hot and difficult.” Refugees stream in from Sudan, Somalia, the Congo and Ethiopia fleeing political persecution and warfare. It’s where Sudanese student Yong Jacob Deng lived before coming to Halifax via WUSC’s student refugee program last August. It’s also where Madut Majok, also from originally from Sudan, spent time before coming to Dalhousie in 2002.

Ms. Keech and Mr. Majok, who now works for WUSC in Ottawa, met during a first-year Spanish class and it was this friendship that spurred Ms. Keech’s interest in international development. “We just got talking and got along so well,” she says. “That’s when I learned how he actually got here and he encouraged me to get involved.”

WUSC is “at the heart of development,” she says. Her involvement staved off the cynicism that comes once students of international development learn about the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing people in Third World countries and how international development projects don’t always work.

“You get into second year and it can get kind of depressing. You think: So, who am I? This little IDS student in Halifax, Nova Scotia. What could I ever do to help?” says Ms. Keech. “But with WUSC, you’re on the ground; you’re helping people as they arrive and adjust to life; you feel you really can make a difference.

“And you don’t have to go away to help either. There’s a lot to be done right here.”

SEE VIDEO: The Lucky Ones, a CBC documentary about the journey of two student refugees, Nabiho and Ibrahim, from Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. 

GET INVOLVED: WUSC at Dalhousie is recruiting new members. Interested in getting involved? E-mail


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