All's well that ends well

By Greg Campbell Posted: October 16, 2015 9:00 a.m.

(l-r) President Vianne Timmons with Patience Umereweneza and Samuel Umereweneza.
(l-r) President Vianne Timmons with Patience Umereweneza and Samuel Umereweneza. Photo courtesy of Trevor Hopkin - U of R Photography.

As she thought about it on Monday, October 12, Patience Umereweneza had plenty to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day.

For one thing, she was less than a week away from graduating from the University of Regina with a Bachelor’s degree in health sciences. But what really made her Thanksgiving memorable was that it marked her father’s first visit to Canada since Patience arrived in Regina as a refugee in 2008.

Long after turkey leftovers had been stored away in most Regina refrigerators, Samuel Umereweneza’s flight arrived from Thailand and father and daughter were reunited.

“I feel like I won the lottery,” says Patience of her father’s unlikely arrival. “I was contemplating not going to Convocation. It would have been a very bittersweet moment to be on the stage without my father there. I wasn’t expecting that he would be able to come.”

Only a few weeks ago, Patience could never have dreamed that her father would be in the Convocation audience, because his bid for a visitor’s visa was denied by Canadian embassy officials in Bangkok.

Things looked grim until University of Regina President Vianne Timmons found out about the Umerewenezas’ predicament. She arranged for a personalized invitation to be sent to Samuel inviting him to the 42nd annual Fall Convocation. It was the document that turned the tide.

Officials relented and Samuel was off for Canada to see his daughter cross the Convocation stage and receive the degree for which she had worked so hard and endured so much.

“I was very, very excited to see Patience,” Samuel says. “It was one of the happiest days of my life. I am so thankful for President Timmons’ invitation. It was a very powerful document and without it I would not have received the visa.”

The Umerewenezas’ story begins in Rwanda. In 1992 the family fled the country that was at the time embroiled in a devastating civil war. Patience was only 3 years old. Eventually they made their way to Bangkok – urban refugees with no privileges, no status and no rights.

Still, the Umerewenezas were safe and the small family persevered. At the insistence of her father, and with the help of some neighbours who served as instructors,

Patience and her sister Victoria learned the Thai language. Learning the language was crucial to the sisters because it allowed them to do something most refugees couldn’t – enrol in Thai public schools and finish high school.

The language of instruction in Thailand’s international schools is English but the schools are extremely expensive. On the other hand, Thai schools are inexpensive and any costs are covered by the UN Refugee Agency.  

As she neared the end of high school, Patience realized that a post-secondary education in Thailand would be impossible and she would likely have to abandon her dream of working in the health sector. She started to look for alternatives.

Then, in early 2008, she discovered World University Service of Canada (WUSC) and its student refugee program. On June 24, 2008 Patience found out she was coming to Canada, sponsored in part by the University of Regina Group for Refugees (URGR).

Professor emeritus Jack Boan was one of the founders of the URGR and remains active in the group to this day. He says the group first got together in the late 1970s to sponsor a refugee family fleeing Vietnam. Donations from faculty and staff supported the family for a year. The following year, the group decided to sponsor refugee students and has done so ever since.

“It really feels wonderful to be able to help students from all over the world and give them an opportunity that they would not have in their homelands – the opportunity of education,” says Boan. “All of our students have gone on to get jobs and are contributing to Canadian society. It’s very gratifying to be involved in this effort.”

Recently, the University announced it would provide approximately $100,000 per year to help fund refugees pursuing post-secondary education at the U of R. The money matches funding already raised by the University of Regina Students’ Union (URSU) through a student levy.

“The University of Regina has a rich history of helping students from around the globe,” says Timmons. “Over the years, University of Regina faculty, staff and students have helped sponsor almost 60 refugees. If my invitation played any role in helping Samuel Umereweneza see his daughter’s dream of university graduation come true, then I’m very pleased.”

Patience will receive the University of Regina Group for Refugees award at today’s Convocation ceremony.

She has taken some time off from her job at Regina Transition House so she and Samuel can spend as much time together as possible until his return to Thailand on October 22. And while it will be a shorter visit than both would have liked, Samuel is already planning to return as soon as possible.