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Canada Day: OISE-bound award winner aims to improve university experience for new immigrants

Sara Asalya – one of RBC’s Top 25 Immigrant Award winners – is already making her mark

By Kaitlyn Balkovec

June 28, 2018


In the six years that she’s been in Canada, Sara Asalya has been making a mark within the student immigrant community. After emigrating from Palestine in 2012, Asalya has been completing her postgraduate certificate at a Canadian institution – and says the particular challenges she’s faced as an immigrant have inspired her to improve the experience for others.

“I recognized that within post-secondary institutions, there are many gaps in the systems that are designed to assist immigrant students in their transition into university,” said Asalya, who established the Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson (NSAR), where she’s been studying at Ryerson University, to try and address such gaps by providing “a safe and empowering space for immigrant students.”

Her passion for the cause is clear – and was recently honoured. In June, the student leader, social justice activist, dedicated volunteer and mother of two was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Award winners, which recognizes inspirational immigrants who have made a positive impact in their new Canadian communities.

A master’s degree at OISE will be the next addition to Asalya’s impressive list of accomplishments. She was recently accepted into the Master of Higher Education program and will begin her studies this fall.

The Markham, Ont., resident recently spoke to OISE News about her experience as a new Canadian, her work with the immigrant student community, and what she’s looking forward to at OISE.


Sara Asalya speaking at a conference held by the Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson (NSAR), the first organization of its kind at the Toronto university, which she founded. (Photo courtesy of Sara Asalya)


Tell us a bit about your journey to becoming a Canadian.

I was born and raised in Jabaliya, the largest of Gaza’s eight refugee camps and home to more than 120,000 Palestinian refugees. I witnessed first-hand the impact of violence, displacement, and trauma on the lives of war refugees and was extensively exposed to the lived experiences of these vulnerable communities. This has shaped my understanding of social justice and human rights by instilling me with a passion to effect change by helping others.

After the war on Gaza in 2008, I decided to leave my country and immigrate to Canada with my husband and son. Brushing shoulders with death had an irreversible impact on me and I didn’t want my children to grow up in a war-torn country. Adapting to a new environment and finding a community that I could belong to while re-positioning my identity were the biggest challenges I faced when I came to Canada. However, these personal struggles helped me connect with many fellow newcomers and have aided me in the work that I do for the immigrant community.

What makes you most proud to be Canadian?

Canada prides itself on being an ethnically diverse and a multicultural nation that embraces people of every race, religion and culture. It has presented itself as a cultural mosaic, a “salad bowl” of different groups that are encouraged to uphold and celebrate their diversity within the wider Canadian community. This is a clear contrast to the American model of the “melting pot”, where immigrants are expected to adopt and practice the American way only, regardless of their background. I am proud to be Canadian, to be a citizen in the first country to implement an official policy of multiculturalism in 1971, a country that welcomed and accepted refugees and immigrants from all over the world.  

What do you love most about Canada and why?

For many people, coming to Canada is a dream, but for some immigrants and refugees, coming to Canada was not something they planned to do. People from war-torn countries are often forced to leave their homes to seek refuge from violence and persecution and, if they are lucky enough, they may find themselves in Canada.

What I love most about Canada is not only how welcoming it is for immigrants, but also how effortlessly it can feel like home. The Canadian values that emphasize compassion, respect and inclusion tremendously help newcomers in building their new lives here on solid grounds of equality and justice.

Share with us a bit about your efforts to help new Canadians.

My first-hand experience as an immigrant at a Canadian university inspired me to make changes within the immigrant student community. I recognized that within post-secondary institutions, there are many gaps in the systems that are designed to assist immigrant students in their transition into university.

This motivated me to establish the Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson (NSAR). This is the first platform of its kind at the university, and is designed to be a safe and empowering space for immigrant students to build fellowship, capacity, and community through their shared experiences. We recently established a Newcomer Students’ Scholarship that will be open to all newcomer students from universities across the Greater Toronto Area.

In the fall, we’re starting a campaign to encourage newcomer engagement in the Canadian political system. This will focus on bringing awareness to alternative ways that newcomers can participate in the democratic system, since they don’t qualify to vote.

I also feel it is very important to educate newcomer students and communities about Indigenous knowledge and history in Canada. NSAR organizes different educational events that aim to build solidarity between migrant and Indigenous communities which involves the bridging of our understandings of global imperialism and Canada’s ongoing colonial legacy.

We also organize conferences to highlight stories of migration through interactive panel discussions that engage students and provide experiential learning opportunities. This year, on Canada Day, we are launching our “Atlas of Canada” project. This project aims to capture the life stories of Canadians as seen through the lens of migration by tracking human movements across time and space from one trajectory to another.

What advice would you give to Canadians on Canada Day?

My first piece of advice to all new Canadians is to step out of your comfort zone, make new friends from different backgrounds, and learn about different cultures. This will certainly ease your transition to Canada, broaden your perspectives, and contribute to your personal growth and success. I know that moving to a different environment and restarting your career can be very stressful and scary. I have found that newcomers who can build resilience, develop adaptability and leverage support have a much better chance of realizing their goals.

My advice to Canadians on Canada Day is to be proud of your wonderful country and unified multicultural society, and continue to celebrate this beautiful heritage. It is imperative to also acknowledge that there is still progress to be made in many areas, particularly around truth and reconciliation for Indigenous communities and our response to the global refugee crisis.

You will begin your studies at OISE this fall. Why did you choose OISE?

OISE is known for its commitment to equity and social justice, and is one of the only institutions in Canada to offer a Master’s in Higher Education. I choose this program particularly as it supports my goal to continue the work I started as an undergraduate student. That is, to continue making changes in my community through more accessible and transparent support systems in higher education for immigrant and refugee students.

I am excited to gain additional skills and knowledge that will allow me to work in education settings where policies, curricula, and support systems are developed to aid newcomers and students from marginalized communities. I am also interested in looking at the impact of war, displacement and violence on adult learners who come from war-torn countries. Having experienced this first-hand, I have a personal investment in examining the experiences of students and their sense of belonging at their respective universities and colleges, and how they navigate support systems available to them. I know that OISE will offer me lots of opportunities to learn, grow, and make an impact in my community.