Funding the Future for Refugee and Newcomer Youth

Edmonton Refugee and Emerging Community scholarship fund helps students pursue post-secondary opportunities

It was a chance meeting more than a decade ago, but for Vanessa Desa the memory is as vivid as if it were yesterday. While attending a conference hosted by the Canadian Council for Refugees, she struck up a conversation with a young man on the lunch break. As it turned out, he had spent 12 years of his childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp. Now as a high school student in Canada, he was looking forward to a bright future and considering a career in medicine. That brief exchange left a lasting impression on Desa.

“He saw things that no child should ever have to see [in the refugee camp],” she says with tears in her eyes. “What came to mind for me was the resilience of this young man — to come to Canada to start high school and still have such powerful hopes and dreams. We need to support that resilience. We need to find ways to show young people who come from similar backgrounds that we as Canadians care about you. We believe in your resilience and we want to support you along your journey.”

Vanessa Desa, co-founder of the Edmonton Refugee & Emerging Community Scholarship Fund.

Desa was no stranger to the stories of tenacity demonstrated by newcomers to Canada. She was working with the Strategic Alliance for the Advancement of Immigrant and Refugee Children and Youth (SAAIRCY), an Edmonton-based collaborative that brought together school boards, government representatives, cultural communities and community-based agencies to identify ways to support newcomer youth to be successful. Although the collaborative is no longer active, in the late 2000s, its mandate was to better understand the unique challenges faced by immigrant and refugee children and youth. Its goal was to support them to achieve success in school, transitioning to post-secondary education or employment and physical and mental well-being.

“As I was working on this initiative, I heard the stories of so many young people,” she says. “For many refugee students I spoke to, they weren’t excelling academically and didn’t have time to volunteer, which is often criteria used for selection on most scholarship funds, because they’re just surviving and supporting their families to survive.”

Previous to working with SAAIRCY, Desa was active on several grant committees with Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF). Through her involvement with ECF, she learned of the Belcourt Brosseau Métis Award Fund, which supports Métis Albertans through funding for post-secondary education and skills development. Seeing the success of the awards, and the impact they had on students, Desa was inspired.

If a similar program existed for immigrant and refugee children, she felt the results would be remarkable. When it came time to discuss research findings and next steps with SAAIRCY stakeholders, Desa saw an opportunity.  As part of her presentation, she invited  ECF, to speak about the Belcourt Brosseau Métis Awards.

“And we just said, ‘You know, wouldn’t this be an amazing building block?’ And so we asked if anyone was interested in creating this fund. Right away, hands shot up around the room,” she says. “A bunch of us invested a little bit of money and it just went forward from there.”

Twelve years after it was founded, the Edmonton Refugee & Emerging Community Scholarship Fund continues to change the lives of students who are newcomers to Canada. The fund is managed and delivered in partnership with ECF and the Africa Centre and, in 2020, it provided 16 scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 to students in Edmonton.

Although she has not been involved in the administration of the fund for many years, Desa is thrilled to see it still going strong. Last year she was honoured when a young woman in her community, who had no knowledge of Desa’s involvement in the fund’s foundation, asked her to be a reference.

“I wasn’t part of the decision-making process or anything, but I got a chance to be a reference for her for this scholarship. That was just wonderful. And even better yet — she got it and she’s doing really well,” she says, beaming. “I hope it continues to grow and thrive and provide opportunities for many more students to succeed.”