Young Arabs flock to Vancouver for higher learning

Turki Faez Al Souhayni prepares for the new school year | Photo by Joseph Mark Switzer

Turki Faez Al Souhayni prepares for the new school year | Photo by Joseph Mark Switzer

If you’ve strolled downtown in the past couple of years, you might have noticed that Vancouver’s streets have been increasingly populated with young Arabs: veiled women sometimes with strollers, young hipsters with afros or perhaps even young men in long flowing robes and headdresses. In fact, statistics show that there has been a surge in young Arab students in Vancouver. According to think tank Metropolis British Columbia, Saudi Arabia, the largest source of incoming Arab students, was the third top source country for international students in Vancouver in 2009, up from 33rd in 2000.

It’s important to first point out that the term Arab is a broad one which encompasses peoples of different cultures, religions and political backgrounds. This means that a wide range of factors attract Arab students from different countries and backgrounds to Vancouver.

A quality reputation

One primary draw for students is that Canada’s universities are reputed to have high educational standards. Eight Canadian universities placed in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings in 2012–2013.

Turki Faez Al Souhayni, a 22-year-old criminology student from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia says that the quality of education in Canada is better compared to the United States.

“If I get a degree from a university here, I can get a job easily [in Saudi Arabia]. With the United States, they have to check which university I went to,” he says.

Canadian universities’ close adherence to high standards is demonstrated by their score requirements for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test, one of the most common English proficiency exams.

Yousef Mohammad Ali, a 35-year-old business professor from Libya, plans to study for a PhD in Canada, but is currently focused on studying for the IELTS exam.

According to Ali, he must score at least 6.5 on the test to be accepted into his PhD program, while some American universities would accept a lesser score. For all undergraduate programs at the University of Calgary, international applicants must score at least 7.0 on the IELTS while at the University of Cincinnati, a comparably ranked American university in the World University Rankings, a 5.5 score is acceptable.

According to Omar Al-Lheebi, a 21-year-old Iraqi beginning his first year at Douglas College, the quality of teachers is another attractive element of Canada’s education system.

“The teachers here really know how to teach,” he says.

Al-Lheebi similarly appreciates how Canada’s less strict attitude towards education affords students more freedom to be creative.

“Learning is fun here,” he says.

A safe place to land

Vancouver’s reputation for safety is another draw. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2013 review of the world’s most livable cities awarded Vancouver 95 out of 100 for safety and stability.

“Here I feel safe and protected,” says Ali.

As a diverse city, Vancouver offers safety and comfort to a community that has become cautious while travelling Post-9/11, Ali explains.

Return on investment

Looking forward, many Arab students will return to their home countries after wrapping up their education in Canada. For Al Souhayni, one thing it will bring is a more competitive CV.

“If there are ten people and me, [the employer] will pick me. I will have ideas that the others will not,” he says.

Turki sees Saudi Arabia’s growth continuing with a strong push from students around the globe when they return home.

One major contributor to the surge in Arab students has been the increase in Saudis. In 2009, there were more than 2,500 Saudi students in Vancouver, up from just 45 in 2000 according to Metropolis British Columbia. In an effort to bring international knowledge into the country, the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme funds over 14, 000 Saudi students in Canada, many of whom choose Vancouver as their first stop. Students, their spouses and children are adequately funded for their living expenses and school fees. Once their time is over, these students return to Saudi Arabia, using their skills and education in their fields.

Ali says the international experience itself will bring many advantages. Being exposed to different ideas and working with a variety of people with different backgrounds is something he sees as essential to conducting research in the future in Libya.

Al-Lheebi’s plans in Canada, however, are more long-term. A recent immigrant to Vancouver, his computer science studies will also give him exposure to the Vancouver tech-industry.

While he would consider moving to the United States if a good job opportunity becomes available, there are more than enough opportunities to stay and work in Vancouver.

With files from John Dingle