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Photo by Merle Robillard

Living in limbo

Zimbabwe-born Tanya Mpala has no legal status in Canada. College-age students like her face systemic barriers that can bring their education to a screeching halt.

By Carolyn Morris

Tanya Mpala, a bubbly 18-year-old with black hair in neat twists, pulls a tiny blue netbook computer out of her bag as we sit at a boardroom table. I’m supposed to be interviewing her, but she’s the one eagerly asking questions about journalism and typing notes. A constant learner. No wonder she graduated from high school with honours, received a prestigious lieutenant-governor’s student volunteer award and writes a youth column for a Brampton, Ont., newspaper. No wonder all three of the universities she applied to — the University of Toronto, Ryerson and York — accepted her. But there was a catch. She would have to pay hefty international fees, which she couldn’t afford.

Even though she’s lived in Toronto since she was nine years old, Tanya isn’t a permanent resident. Canada’s Immigrant and Refugee Board rejected her family’s refugee claim soon after she arrived with her mother and older brother in 2001. But because of a moratorium against deportations to their home country of Zimbabwe, Canadian officials couldn’t send them back. The family has been in immigration limbo ever since — allowed to stay but not as bona fide residents.

Tanya felt like an anomaly among her friends, who were all on the path to higher education. But she soon realized she wasn’t alone. An estimated 500,000 people are living in Canada without any immigration status — including thousands who can’t legally be sent back. Many of them are children or teenagers. While migrant rights groups such as No One Is Illegal have fought, with some success, for non-status children to have access to elementary and secondary education (the Toronto District School Board and several others accept children regardless of their status and have a policy against reporting them to authorities), higher education remains elusive. As they move into adulthood, brimming with potential, prohibitive international fees keep them out of university.

Like many migrants, the Mpalas fled violence. “They came to raid, they did so many things,” says Tanya’s mom, who didn’t want to be named in this story. While Tanya’s mother was teaching at a secretarial college and raising four young children in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, Tanya’s grandfather was involved with a small political party opposed to Mugabe’s regime. Fearing for her family’s safety, Tanya’s mom sent her two eldest sons to England in 2000, where some of the extended family had taken refuge. A year later, she brought her two youngest children — Tanya and her older brother — to Canada, where her husband was living.

Tanya cried and cried the day they left Zimbabwe. At nine years old, she thought she’d never see her grandparents again (she hasn’t since), and because everyone told her Canada was so cold, she figured there was no sun here at all. Starting off in a shelter, they soon moved to an apartment. Tanya’s parents split up, and her father left for Vancouver. Her mother got a job in the finance department of a plumbing supply company, Tanya and her brother adjusted to their new school, and all three of them worshipped at a Pentecostal church. Their faith kept them hopeful and also helped to reunite the family. The church sponsored Tanya’s two oldest brothers, which resulted in their getting permanent resident status in Canada.

Tanya, her other brother and their mom weren’t so fortunate; their refugee claim was rejected. They applied to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, arguing they would suffer excessive hardship if sent back, but that process can take over three years. In the meantime, they can purchase work and study permits but have no public health coverage. They don’t qualify for certain tax benefits and can’t leave the country (or they might not be allowed in again). And when it came to university, Tanya was told she had to pay international rates.

But Tanya didn’t know university fees would be out of reach when she studied for exams and stayed up late writing essays in high school, when she taught Sunday school at church, volunteered for Black History Month events, volunteered for her school’s social justice committee, became the fundraising convener for student council, or volunteered for her new principal’s breakfast initiative — a forum for students to connect with the administration. She didn’t know this when she won awards for her high grades and volunteer work, when she did all the things that bright young people do as they prepare to become educated and engaged adults.

So when Tanya opened the acceptance letters from the University of Toronto, from Ryerson and York, welcoming her as an international student while outlining the tuition fees of over $15,000 a year rather than the resident fees of $6,000, she was devastated.

Many non-status students end up like Marcel (not his real name), a 20-year-old from Guyana who spends countless hours in his bedroom playing guitar, painting and working on his computer. Though he graduated from a high school just outside Toronto two years ago, Marcel could only watch as his friends went off to university. He happily edits their university essays, but dreads get-togethers where they ask what he’s been doing. He cringes when his girlfriend’s new university classmates ask, “Where do you go?” assuming he’s a student like them.

Marcel came to Canada from Guyana with his parents, younger brother and sister in 2003, when he was 14. Their refugee claim was rejected years later, but they didn’t show up for deportation. His parents found under-the-table work, and he and his siblings were able to stay in school. Like the Mpalas, they’re applying for residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, but will have to wait another year or so for an answer. Meanwhile, Marcel has found a job in a network cabling company (also under the table) and is trying to learn more about music, painting and graphic arts. But, having been an honours student, he’s yearning to study a profession.

Tanya nearly headed down this same path. But after receiving the acceptance letters with their international fees, she shared her financial predicament with everyone she thought might be able to help — her principal, teachers, friends, people at her church. As it turned out, her friend’s mom’s neighbour was a professor at York and brought Tanya’s case to key people at the university. Tanya then met with members of the administration and wrote a letter highlighting her grades, awards and volunteer work. Three months later, York agreed to make an exception for her, allowing her to pay resident fees. (Even though the fee structure is set with the provincial ministry responsible for universities and colleges, these institutions have some internal leeway.) In addition, Tanya managed to secure three small scholarships, which, combined with a part-time job at a community centre, covered her resident fees for the first year.

“When doors started to open,” says Tanya, “I thought, how could this happen?” Despite her previous worries, the sun still shone in this new country.

She credits God for the opportunities she’s been granted, but she’s concerned about others who aren’t as fortunate — like Marcel, and like her non-status brother, who got a retail job out of high school but wants to study physiotherapy. “It’s really hard to be in this situation. I know how much it’s impeding people — they’re just caught in Canada.” If she hadn’t made the right connections or been so determined, she wouldn’t have made it.

At 4:30 a.m., her mom flicks on the light and says, “Vuka, Tanya” — “good morning” in her native Sindebele — “Time to wake up!” Tanya rises and prepares the lunches. One of her brothers drives them to a nearby bus stop, where they catch the first of three buses taking her mother to work and Tanya to York. Balancing university classes in public policy and management, a part-time job, volunteer work with her church, a newspaper column and a long commute, Tanya still makes time to drop by her old high school to visit staff or to talk to students about university life.

She has also started a new project — establishing a scholarship fund for non-status students. As she looks for partners to help with the idea, Tanya, her family and a few supporters have already raised over $1,000 for the fund through bake sales and a barbecue. She wants to build something for teens like herself, so the search for status doesn’t hold them back.

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