Cali Jamal thought his future was over when he received his high school diploma at Toronto’s City Adult Learning Centre.

Despite an 85 per cent average, the former East African refugee was ready to give up his dream of a university education and continue his $7-an-hour job at a warehouse because asylum-seekers were not eligible for student loans.


Although the law eventually changed in 2004, Jamal was able to get a head start at the University of Toronto’s business school in 2003, thanks to the Maytree Foundation scholarship program, which helps financially stressed young refugees pursue post-secondary education. “If you took Maytree out of my life, I would’ve still been moving boxes in the warehouse,” said Jamal, 28, who graduated last year and now works as a financial analyst.

“Now, I can stand tall and walk on the street with my head up.”

Each year, the program awards eight to 10 refugee youths with a $17,000 scholarship, covering tuition, books and living expenses. Since its 1999 inception, it has helped put more than 140 students through university and college.

Maytree chair Judy Broadbent said the foundation started the program after noticing a growing number of young refugees being denied access to education.

“The refugee process could take a long time and these were Canadians-in-waiting,” said Broadbent, whose foundation along with other advocacy groups pushed Ottawa and Ontario to expand the student loan program to include those who are granted “protected person status” but not yet landed immigrants.

Over the years, the program has boasted graduates who have become lawyers, nurses, businessmen and engineers, including a recent Venezuelan refugee who works as a landscape architect in the Netherlands and a Zimbabwe woman finishing a master’s degree in public health.

While the financial assistance helps students focus on their studies, scholarship recipient Axelle Karera said the program also serves as a support network for refugee youth who share similar traumatic pasts.

“Being a refugee is a degrading experience because when you lose your country and family, the things that make you who you are, you are losing a part of yourself,” said Karera, 27, who lost most of her family during the Rwandan genocides and came here in 2001.

“Education gives you a chance to take back your dignity. It empowers you and opens doors for you,” said the York University philosophy and psychology student.

The scholarship is now accepting applications. The deadline is March 28. Visit

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