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Over the course of the past nine years, 23 students from five scenes of conflict have been brought to Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

Students and faculty from Wilfrid Laurier University arrive in Ottawa Monday with an urgent plea: help them get students who have been put at risk out of conflict zones and on their campus.

Laurier is on to a good idea. If everyone acted smartly, displaced students from Ukraine and elsewhere could be on campus this fall or winter. The odds against such swift action from the federal government are high. But that’s no reason not to try.

In two separate plebiscites in recent years, students at the Waterloo, Ont., university have voted to accept a modest $8 increase in their tuition to bring students in conflict environments to the university.

International Students Overcoming War, or ISOW, a student-led organization, selects and pays for students to come to Laurier, in partnership with the university and non-governmental organizations.

Over the course of the past nine years, 23 students from five scenes of conflict – including Myanmar, Gaza and Syria – have been brought to the university. A student from Afghanistan arrives in September, 2023.

But the global situation worsens every month. Since last summer, fresh crises have emerged in Afghanistan and Ukraine. Conflicts fester in Yemen, South Sudan and elsewhere. The United Nations estimated that 84 million people had been displaced globally. And that was before five million Ukrainians were forced to flee their country.

ISOW wants to set up a new rapid-response mechanism that would target students at risk in human-rights emergencies.

The goal would be to leverage federal funding that, paired with student contributions, would bring displaced students to Laurier and to other universities that agreed to join the program.

“We realized that the university is not really as well-equipped as we would like to respond rapidly to those fleeing conflict,” said Ritu Singh, a law and political-science student who is the current president of ISOW.

Peter Boehm, who was one of Canada’s most senior diplomats before entering the Senate, is trying to open doors for the Laurier visitors in Ottawa.

ISOW “represents student idealism at its finest,” said Mr. Boehm.

The government, he said, reacted swiftly to the pandemic and to the crisis in Ukraine. He would like to see Ottawa also act swiftly “for students coming out of war zones whose education has been disrupted and who would benefit from some Canadian university education.”

But the obstacles are many. First and foremost, the federal government would have to agree to help fund the program and to expedite visas for students at risk who are accepted into it, ideally in time for students to enter university this fall or winter.

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said by e-mail Friday that the best way for Ukrainian students to come to Canada is through the existing Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel.

“Students can apply through CUAET or they can apply for a study permit, which will be priority processed,” Aidan Strickland wrote. That program, however, is not designed to meet the specific needs of students seeking support to attend Canadian universities.

Beyond that is the question of equity. “One of the debates that has to take place on campuses, and I think nationally, is what constitutes an emergency and who should be prioritized,” said Gavin Brockett, a professor of history who is vice-dean of arts.

Should the program be there “for the Ukrainian student in Poland, who might go back to Ukraine, or for the Somali young woman or South Sudanese young man who were born into conflict and have never had an opportunity to go anywhere or get anything?”

That said, “could Laurier accept Ukrainian students for September if the government provides funds? The answer is yes,” said Prof. Brockett. “And partly that’s because I know our admissions office has had Ukrainian students reaching out and asking about possibilities for admission.”

The ISOW program deserves our support, especially because students run it and help fund it. Other student communities and universities should sign on. Ottawa should chip in, both with funding and with expedited visas.

The program could operate in two streams: a regular program that awards funding to students in places where conflict is endemic, and a rapid-response program for emergencies such as happened in Afghanistan last year and is happening now in Ukraine.

The rapid-response stream would likely not be in place in time to help anyone this year, or even next. But there will be future crises.

And though it is against all odds, if students from Afghanistan and Ukraine were in class at Laurier right after Labour Day, wouldn’t that be fine?

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