Making it Count - the Journey from Refugee to Ph.D.

Ella Elazkany was one of the recipients of the President's Award for Refugees and Displaced Persons in 2017. Now, she is convocating with a master's in Mathematical Finance and is gearing up for her Ph.D.

Saba Al Hammouri - 22 November 2019

2013 was supposed to be a time of celebration for Ella Elazkany, who at the time had graduated from university with a bachelor's degree in mathematics. Instead, 2013 marked the last time that Ella would ever see her home in Syria. The apartment that her family had lived in, the small stores that her dad owned around their home, all gone - blown up.

Living in Damascus amid a civil war left Ella and her family displaced for several years. They found themselves moving from one neighbourhood to another, in hopes that Ella would be able to finish her degree. The constant interruption to her studies caused Ella to take five years to graduate, but when she finally obtained her degree, she and her family knew that they could no longer stay in Syria.

"After I graduated, it was impossible to stay and get a job, to have a normal life where you have a stable job, a stable place to stay," explains Ella.

With few options available to them, Ella and her family fled Syria in 2015 to find some solace in Beirut, Lebanon. But life would not be easy in Lebanon either. As undocumented refugees living in Beirut, Ella and her family struggled to find work. Ella found herself jumping from one job to another, unable to escape the instability of her situation.

The jobs that Ella could find had nothing to do with her bachelor's degree in mathematics, but that didn't stop her from pursuing her passion for the subject. Waking up at three o'clock in the morning, Ella would read books about mathematical finance and try to teach herself new concepts. She had the drive and the passion for learning, but her circumstances had left her trapped.

It wasn't until her uncle came to visit her family that a small beacon of hope emerged. He had heard about a program that would allow Ella the opportunity to come to Canada to continue her education.

That program was the Student Refugee Program run through World University Service of Canada (WUSC), a Canadian international development non-profit organization dedicated to improving education, employment and empowerment opportunities for youth, women and refugees.

Ella's initial reaction to hearing about WUSC was skepticism. At this point, she had applied to so many programs, study permits, and embassies without success, that this new opportunity seemed too good to be true.

"I didn't want to put my hopes up for something that's not going to happen," says Ella. "But [my uncle] convinced me to just try it, so I applied."

Through every step of the application process, Ella remained skeptical and was cautious not to get her hopes too high.

"I thought okay, if I succeed at this step, I might not succeed at the next. I was just waiting for an email that said, 'We apologize, but you are not going to be selected.'"

Ten long, nerve-wracking months after submitting her application, Ella finally received an email regarding her status. It was not the rejection email that she had spent months anticipating; it was a congratulatory email - she was going to Canada.

Ella was chosen to be a WUSC student, but at this point in the process, she didn't know where in Canada she would study. To be placed at a university, Ella would have to apply for her program of choice.

Her passion for mathematical finance lead her to apply for a master's in that field, though she admits she would have settled for a bachelor's degree if it meant studying the subject she loved once again.

"I applied, I waited, and I got the news back," Ella recalls the email she received. "It said, 'You'll be a student at the University of Alberta, master's in Mathematical Finance.'"

Ella was one of five recipients for the University of Alberta President's Award for Refugees and Displaced Persons. The award is substantial, covering the cost of tuition and two years' living expenses for the recipients.

It was a moment Ella would never forget. "I was overwhelmed with happiness. I would have the right to work, to study, without someone chasing me at checkpoints asking to see my documents. It's amazing."

The emotions of excitement and happiness that Ella felt were also met with sadness. Going to Canada meant that, for the first time in her life, Ella would be leaving her family behind. Her family, however, couldn't have been more supportive, and encouraged her to go.

"They told me, 'pursue your future, pursue a degree. If you are living happy, we are happy for you.'"

Saying goodbye wasn't easy. Ella recalls bidding her brother farewell at dawn in the street; everything around them was dark. Due to his legal status in Lebanon, her brother was unable to cross certain checkpoints, meaning that he would not make it to the airport to send her off.

Accompanied by her mom and sister, Ella arrived at the airport anxious about what awaited her on the other side.

"It was scary sitting in that airplane, and leaving the Beirut International Airport and thinking, 'Was this a mistake?'" Ella explains. "You know that it's a good opportunity, a great opportunity, but still, you fear the unknown that is waiting for you."

Luckily for Ella, she was not the only WUSC recipient en route to Canada. Seeing her fellow recipients on the plane alongside her eased her nerves, and by the time she reached Edmonton, she was excited to start the next chapter of her life.

When Ella arrived in Edmonton, she was welcomed by a group of volunteers, eager to support her and her fellow newcomers. The volunteers were key in Ella's transition to Edmonton. "They did an amazing job whenever I needed help, and one of them is a really close friend now."

Acclimating to Edmonton came with its own unique challenges. Like many newcomers, adjusting to the Canadian weather was one challenge that Ella had to overcome.

"The weather was what surprised me the most because it felt like winter in August," Ella recalls. "It was raining all the time, similar to how winter is in the Middle East."

Beyond getting accustomed to the weather, Ella's main concern wasn't about getting used to Canadian culture or getting involved socially. It was about ensuring she excelled academically.

The educational system that Ella was used to in Syria was very different than the one she would experience at UAlberta. In Syria, there were no assignments and multiple exams. Students had one test they either passed or failed, and they could redo the exam as many times as they needed to. In Canada, that wasn't the case.

In preparation for her time at UAlberta, Ella began reading for her degree before she arrived in Edmonton. Once she was here, she immediately met up with her supervisor to see how she could excel in this degree. Ella knew that if she wanted to succeed, she would have to work hard.

With her level of tenacity, drive and preparation, it should come as no surprise that Ella will be graduating with a 3.8 GPA. This time, Ella is planning on celebrating her achievements with her newfound friends and her fiancé, whom she also met through the WUSC program.

"I didn't have the chance to graduate in Syria. I didn't even feel happy about graduating and obtaining my bachelor's degree," says Ella. "But now, I have the chance to be really happy that I have succeeded and that I have reached this far in my academics. It's a more advanced degree, a more difficult educational system, and I made it."

Of course, it is a bittersweet moment for Ella as she can't help but think about her family back home, who are unable to share in her celebration. Despite the mixed emotions, Ella remains extremely grateful for all that she has gotten to experience and all that she has accomplished.

"You always need to be grateful for what you have," she explains "Just be grateful for that, and if you have the ambition for anything else, you can do your best, and if it comes then great, but if it doesn't, well, that's why you have to be grateful for what you already have."

Ella's ambition and hard work have led her to the finish line of her Master's degree, but this is not the end of her journey at UAlberta.

Ella is set to continue at the University of Alberta to do her Ph.D. in Mathematical Finance. Her goal is to work either in the private industry or to land an academic job. In true Ella fashion, she is already preparing for the road ahead. She has started developing her skills for both fields so that there is no limit to the opportunities available to her in the future.

Preparation and hard work have been the keys to Ella's success. Aware that these opportunities don't come often, Ella has made the most of her time in Canada and hopes to continue to do so. It was important for Ella to make this opportunity count, and looking back at all that she has been able to accomplish, it is safe to say that she did just that.