News / Toronto

Helping Canada's Dreamers get out of limbo— and into classrooms

In a first for Canada, the FCJ Refugee Centre and York University have teamed up to help young people with uncertain immigration status attend university for free.

York University is the first post-secondary institution in Canada to give youth without immigration status access to university education.

Chris So / Torstar News Service

York University is the first post-secondary institution in Canada to give youth without immigration status access to university education.

A Toronto non-profit is drawing attention to a lesser-known crisis plaguing youth in the immigration process: access to education.

Thousands of young people across Canada are shut out of universities simply because their immigration status is uncertain, said Francisco Ricco, co-founder of FCJ Refugee Centre.

"I see them all the time and hear their stories. They are stuck," Ricco said of the young people he calls "Canadian dreamers."

"The federal government doesn't care about them because they have no status, but the province and private sector should create more scholarships for these kids to go to university."

In a Canadian first, the FCJ Refugee Centre and York University have teamed up to help such students attend university. With a grant from the Pan Am legacy fund, 10 students have started to attend various programs at York this year.

Kids caught in this limbo are a byproduct of many factors, Ricco explained. Some of them are children of refugee families whose immigration claims are yet to be approved. Some refused to follow their families when they were deported from the United States after President Donald Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program last year, deciding to cross into Canada instead. Others are young refugees on their own, whose applications were rejected.

Anyone can attend elementary and high school in Canada regardless of their immigration status, but legal documents are required for access to post-secondary education. The only option for these status-less youths is to register as international students, which Ricco said is just not affordable for them.

York's president Rhonda Lenton said there could be between 200,000 and 500,000 families across the country still waiting for legal immigration status; the school's own study estimates the number to be over 50,000 in the GTA.

"We have a commitment to social justice. These are talented students coming to us, and we have to ensure none of them is left behind," Lenton said, noting the school is looking for more funding to expand the program.

Ricco said more than 120 people applied for the chance to go to York as part of the new initiative.

Many "dreamers" feel isolated and marginalized as they're stuck in shelters or in precarious jobs all the time, he said.

"Forget about the sanctuary city. No one in Toronto publicly helps people without status, except maybe at shelters," Ricco said.

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