Saudi Student at KPU One of Thousands Forced from Canadian Academia

Omar Blwshi discusses how he had to re-plan his future due to the Saudi-Canadian conflict

(Leah Rosehill)

When Omar Blwshi turned on his laptop in a Vancouver coffee shop, an unexpected message from the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau caught his eye. Worried about what the message might say, he hesitated to open it.

The email informed him that, due to recent political tension between Saudi Arabia and Canada, he had to leave the country and continue his studies elsewhere.

Everything about his education and his intended career path began to rush through his mind, but his main concern was for his father. Blwshi was one year from graduating, and he was hoping he could complete his education to make his father proud and begin taking care of his family.

“I remember thinking that I couldn’t go back without a degree,” says Blwshi. “I’ve been here for years and my family is expecting me to come back with a degree and a clear mind to start working, I don’t want to disappoint them. I’ve been away from them for such a long time; it would break their hearts if it was all for nothing.”

More than 16,000 Saudi students in Canada received the same email instructing them to continue their studies elsewhere.

It began with a tweet sent out by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Global Affairs Canada criticizing Saudi Arabia’s arrests of women’s rights activists Samar Badawi and Raif Badawi. Saudi Arabia responded by dismissing the Canadian ambassador before eliminating the educational exchange program with Canada, offering students the choice to transfer to a different country or go back to Saudi Arabia. This decision would potentially affect the more than 16,000 Saudi students currently enrolled in Canadian universities, according to Global News.

In Blwshi’s opinion, “Canada shouldn’t have involved themselves in Saudi’s business,” adding that he feels like he and his friends are now “stuck in the middle.”

“I was going to graduate in two semesters. This pulled me back. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to finish in two years somewhere in America, and that is if I even go there,” he says. “Everything’s so blurry now. I was so close. Now I have to spend more time away from my family because I am not willing to go back empty-handed.”

The Importance of International Students in Canada

According to Statistics Canada, international students “strengthen Canada’s schools, universities, and colleges, as well as the Canadian communities in which they study and live, and they contribute to the quality of the educational experiences of all students in Canada.”

Post-secondary institutions typically seek out international students to increase diversity on university campuses and build international connections. Financially, international students benefit Canada because they contribute to the economy and to filling vacancies in the job market.

The provost and vice-president of KPU, Dr. Salvador Ferreras, adds that “international students enrich the environment and create an interesting dynamic in classrooms.” He says that he lamented the loss of Saudi students at the university, partially because it had a financial impact on tuition revenue.

“The direct impact was not harsh, but it is always felt,” he explains. Ferreras says that Saudi students who did not want to leave the school were cautioned against doing so, and informed them that they would be treated like any other international student if they stayed.

This decision was made due to KPU’s intention to honor their agreements with the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau.

According to Ferreras, the university “supports the students in whatever way [it] can to make sure that they complete their educational journeys in one swoop,” even if they need to go back home for a bit to re-access their plan for the future.

One thing that KPU did to help ease the transition for Saudi students forced to leave the country was allowing those who had completed at least two years of their programs to leave with a diploma. Others, who were a few courses away from graduating, were given the chance to finish their degree.

For non-Saudi KPU student Victoria Valiakos, the mass exodus of students from Saudi Arabia had more sentimental implications.

“Sure, our universities were impacted financially and in terms of diversity, but that is not it. We had our friends, teammates, etcetera … taken away from us,” she says. “I don’t open up to a lot of people, but my best friend is Saudi and she had to leave, and losing a best friend is probably the worst thing that could happen. She is the closest thing to a sister to me and was considered a part of my family, so this has personally impacted me as a non-Saudi individual.”

Valiakos remains hopeful that Saudi students will be able to return to Canada and she will get to see her friend again.

Blwshi returned to Saudi Arabia and is in the process of figuring out what the next step is for him to get an education.

“I’m back to see my family and have their opinion on what I should do. I can’t just jump from one country to another,” he says. “It’s a process and not a simple one.”

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