SFU long way from Burmese prison

November 18, 2004, vol. 31, no. 6
By Howard Fluxgold

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It was only a few years ago that SFU freshman Naw Seng Labang was locked up in a prison in Rangoon, Burma wondering, with some trepidation, what his future held.

Labang was arrested in 1999 because he worked for his uncle, a member of the legislature from the opposition party. After a brief military trial he was given a 7-14 year sentence. “I was tortured,” he recalls. “They don't beat you, but won't give you water for almost two days. Prison conditions were very bad.”

Labang was released in 2001 after he signed a promise not to participate in politics, “but I still had to report to the military every month, so I fled to Thailand.” There he worked for a magazine founded by exiled Burmese students that was banned in Burma.

As a refugee, the 28-year-old was eligible for the World University Service of Canada's (WUSC) student refugee program.

Labang is one of two students sponsored by SFU's local WUSC committee which not only raises money for the sponsorship, but helps the refugee students get used to their new environment.

The other student is Tsehaynesh Deboch of Ethiopia.

Labang, who is studying communication and hopes to do a graduate degree in journalism, says the WUSC sponsorship is “an excellent opportunity for me.” A former geology student at the University of Rangoon, he says he had no choice in what he could study in Burma. He was told he had to study geology. One of the differences he notes in his brief time at SFU (he arrived in mid August) is how hard students work. “Canadian students study very hard - harder than in Burma where they are more relaxed.”

Deboch, 23, from Ethiopia is also sponsored by SFU's WUSC local committee, made up mostly of students. An engineering student in Addis Ababa, she fled to neighbouring Kenya in 2001 when violence erupted after student protests.

She is currently studying science and hopes to take a second degree in engineering, then return to Ethiopia. She says the big change for her in coming to Canada from a Nairobi refugee camp is that “I'm secure. I don't fear to stop my education. I can work and get my own money. In Kenya I couldn't get my own money and what they gave you (in the refugee camp) wasn't enough. Life is very much better here. It is a good opportunity for me to a be a better person and valuable to the world.”

Students in the WUSC program are granted landed immigrant status which allows them to work and apply for scholarships and student loans. Their WUSC sponsorship, which includes a tuition and residency fee waiver from SFU, lasts for two years.

A third international student, Gidey (Michael) Hidush, also from Ethiopia is being jointly sponsored by SFU international and the Hansens' Viking scholarship fund.

Hidush was attending the SOS Children's Village school in Ghana when he was brought to the attention of Randy Martin of SFU international because of his academic excellence. SFU provided a tuition waiver and the Hansens' Viking scholarship fund, set up in the will of Toronto restaurateur Frank Hansen who himself was an orphan, provided the rest.

Hidush, 20, was orphaned when his parents died in a famine when he was only a year old. At 14 the native of Addis Ababa passed an entrance exam and went to live at the SOS Children's Village college in Ghana where he completed high school. Arriving at SFU in mid-September, he says the he was surprised by his residence accommodation. “The biggest difference I find is that boys and girls live together,” says the first year economics student. “I'm not used to that. We lived separately in Ghana.”

Hidush has two older married brothers still living in Ethiopia, “but they don't have much work. They just do day to day activities. They didn't have the same opportunity as me because they were too old and so didn't get a chance.”

Hidush praises the staff at SFU international. “They have gone the extra mile to make me feel comfortable. They've really helped me to get used to the place.”

SOS Children's Villages, was started by an Austrian after the second world war to care for orphans. It provides children who have lost their parents, or who are no longer able to live with them, a permanent home and a stable environment. There are 883 facilities around the world.

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