Syrian student puts his refugee experience to work

I wanted to give something back because of the scholarship—it’s like paying it back a bit.
Aref Sayegh

Scholarship recipient recruited for new research on improving settlement process.


Scant days after arriving at the University of Alberta on a scholarship, Syrian refugee student Aref Sayegh was already giving back to the campus community.

Fluent in both Arabic and English, Sayegh, a graduate student in engineering, was quickly recruited for a new research project that is exploring how the Canadian government can improve the settlement process of Syrian refugees.

As a grateful recipient of the President’s Award for Refugees and Displaced Persons, he said he’s glad to be able to help the university.

“I wanted to give something back because of the scholarship—it’s like paying it back a bit,” he said.

Though Sayegh arrived in Canada just two months ago to join his twin brother Bassel, also a U of A student, and is supported by a network of volunteers through University of Alberta International, “I already feel like a member of society. I’m starting to have my own connections.”

“When I met Aref, he had only been here seven days,” said Sandeep Agrawal, a urban planning professor and supervisor of the refugee project. “I wasn’t expecting he’d be ready to work or would understand what it involved to do the research.”


Agrawal had just received a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to document the settlement of recent Syrian refugees in Alberta cities but needed interns with specialized skills. Sayegh, as it turns out, was a perfect fit for the job, and his own experience, language skills and connections to fellow Syrian refugees are now powering the research.

“He’s a key part of this project,” Agrawal said. “He’s bringing the elements that are quintessential for its success.”

Funded through the SSHRC grant and the U of A’s Graduate Student Internship Program, Sayegh will interview 100 Syrian refugees in Edmonton and 20 more in Lethbridge--most of whom know no English--then help analyze the data. Along with his language translation skills, Sayegh is bridging cultural barriers to build a more comprehensive snapshot of the refugee experience, Agrawal said. He’s drawn up questions, recruited fellow refugees from his community for the study and also connected Agrawal with more Arabic-speaking student interns, both male and female, to help with the project.

And though Sayegh found his arrival to Canada easier because he could speak and understand English, for many others the language barrier added to their burden of leaving everything behind to cope with a new country and new customs, he noted.

“People need someone to talk to in their own language. It’s very important for them to go on to adapt to Canadian society.”

He was eager to help when he learned about the research project—and so were the people he asked to take part.

“They are very enthusiastic to do this. It’s important to them to have this feeling of doing something for the society they are living in.”

Agrawal noted that because of Sayegh’s experience as a refugee coming from Aleppo and then Lebanon, he empathizes with the people in this study, and that’s a much better way of doing research than being completely detached.

“We are hoping we can feel the journey that they took to get here and that they will feel comfortable opening up to us,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sayegh has high hopes for the project, which wraps up next summer and will then be presented to the federal government for consideration.

“I hope for the future they will do something better for newcomers; I hope to do something real.”