The future of students from the Middle Eastern nation still unclear as dispute between the two countries continues

Greta Kooy, News Editor

The Capilano Students’ Union (CSU) continues to monitor the situation on behalf of the international students from Saudi Arabia affected by the diplomatic spat with Canada. “Because this has to do with international politics, we’re fairly limited as a student union in what services we’d be able to provide. We’ve tried to open ourselves up to students and make them aware that they could come to us if they had questions,” said Anna-Elaine Rempel, president and vice president equity and sustainability.

Saudi government officials announced that students from Saudi Arabia studying in Canada were required to leave the country following a statement made by Dennis Horak, Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Students were told to either return home to the Middle East or transfer to other countries to continue their studies.

The Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs turned to social media to speak out against the Saudi government after a series of human rights activists were arrested in the Middle Eastern country. “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists,” read Horak’s Aug. 3 Tweet.

Samar Mohammad Badawi is a 37-year-old Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist who, according to Human Rights Watch, was arrested on July 30 by Saudi authorities along with fellow activist Nassima al-Sadah. Badawi’s brother, Raif Badawi, was arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2012 for insulting Islam in a blog post. He was sentenced to 1,000 lashes as punishment and given a 10 year prison sentence. This followed a series of arrests starting in May 2018.

Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Abel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir said on Aug. 8 that a retraction of the original Tweet and an apology from the Canadian Government would sufficiently repair the diplomatic damage done. “Canada started this and it’s up to Canada to find a way out of it. A mistake was made, a mistake needs to be corrected,” he said.

In response, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement that “Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights,” standing by Horak’s original statement. Canada’s closest international allies have shown little public support during these disputes, with the United Kingdom Foreign & Commonwealth Office stating that “Canada and Saudi Arabia are both close partners of the UK, and we urge restraint.”

Spokesperson for the US Department of State Heather Nauert also commented that “both sides need to diplomatically resolve this. We can’t do it for them, they need to resolve it together.”

The Saudi government responded to Horak’s message by giving the ambassador 24 hours to leave the country, and then suspended all new trade and investment deals between the two countries. Canada also took an economic hit when the Saudi government ordered asset managers to ditch all Canadian shares, bonds and other assets. Diplomatic officials and all medical patients in Canada were also ordered to leave. Only oil exports were unaffected.

Among those affected by the dispute are the some 16,000 Saudi Arabian students who were studying in Canada. When the Saudi government immediately terminated scholarships and study abroad programs, students, many of whom were in the middle of their studies or nearing the completion of PhDs, were left scrambling. According to CBC News, approximately 20 students have officially filed claims for asylum.

“We kindly urge … the government to immediately reverse its decision and work to stop the repercussions of the Saudi government’s policy which will affect the future of thousands of graduates,” a statement issued by the Coordinating Committee for Saudi Students in Canada read.

CityNews Toronto reported in early August 2018 that 115 Saudi Arabian students would not be returning to York University in the fall, with similar statements echoed by the universities of Toronto, Calgary, Manitoba and British Columbia. The effects of the Canadian-Saudi Arabian conflict are also felt at Capilano University. Canadian students’ unions nationwide are offering any assistance they can at this time, and the CSU is no exception. “This is a tense situation for students who don’t know if they can complete the studies they’ve undertaken here. Our key message to our members is that we are looking into it and working with the university to ease the burden on these students,” said the CSU in a statement on Aug. 14.

One student, who consented to speak to the Courier on the condition that they remain anonymous, said “I felt very anxious and frustrated. Should I stay and lose my scholarship? Or go back to the uncertainty?”

The unpredictability of the situation regarding students from Saudi Arabia and their studies in Canada has left many feeling pressured to make quick decisions that will ultimately change their lives forever. With very little time to make these pressing choices students were left scrambling, especially with looming tuition fees and rent costs. “I’ll have to adjust accordingly … I’ll be losing my scholarship which means I’ll have to cover all my expenses, the international tuition fees and finding a job in a span of a couple of weeks,” they said.

International students must be enrolled in full-time programs at CapU, which means taking more than three courses per term and paying an international tuition rate. International students typically pay $584 per credit, compared to the $130.26 per credit that Canadian citizens and permanent residents pay.

A total of 37 students from Saudi Arabia were accepted at CapU for the fall semester, and although this is a relatively small number, the CSU is aware of the impact the decision made on their academic futures. “We’re reaching out to them and letting them know that we are going to be their representatives and that we are there for them if they need anything,” said Rempel. “I believe that [the CSU is] trying to figure out a way to help them transition with the least amount of damage,” said the Saudi student.

A statement released on Aug. 23 by the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau said students on government-funded scholarships would have their stay in Canada extended until Sept. 22, although their scholarships were officially terminated on Aug. 31.

Updated September 24: Raif Badawi was incorrectly referred to as Samar’s sister instead of her brother.

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