Student Refugee Program’s Refugee Athletes Stream

Sports-Linked Scholarships Enable Skills-Based Complementary Education Pathways to Canada for Refugee Athletes
Good Practices

Student Refugee Program’s Refugee Athletes Stream

Sports-Linked Scholarships Enable Skills-Based Complementary Education Pathways to Canada for Refugee Athletes

"The Student Refugee Program made me comfortable being me. I was so glad to be part of this amazing program where I am not hesitant sharing my journey and the fact that I am a refugee. It validates our journey as student refugees"

- Nigara, Centennial College student and refugee olympian

The project in brief

The project is implemented by World University Service of Canada (WUSC) and the Olympic Refugee Foundation in Canada. It began in 2021 and is currently ongoing

In partnership with the Olympic Refuge Foundation, Centennial and Sheridan colleges, and the UNHCR, WUSC has expanded its longstanding Student Refugee Program to include refugee athletes on the basis of their unique combination of academic and athletic accomplishments. This initiative builds upon WUSC’s complementary education pathway program to provide refugee athletes with an opportunity to immigrate and rebuild their lives in Canada, while pursuing their postsecondary studies and continuing to practice their sport in safety.

The addition of refugee athletes and sports-linked scholarships to WUSC’s Student Refugee Program has multiple objectives:

  1. Leverage athletic scholarships to provide access to education in Canada and a complementary pathway to resettlement.
  2. Provide an opportunity for refugee athletes to continue developing and practicing their sport in safety and in conditions where they may thrive;
  3. Engage new and non-traditional actors in refugee inclusion and protection;
  4. Pilot a complementary skills-based pathway that recognizes and values the athletic talents of refugees.

Main activities of the Good Practice

The Olympic Refuge Foundation and UNHCR collaborated to identify eligible recipients of the Refugee Athlete Scholarships who were suitable for community sponsorship to Canada. WUSC played a pivotal role by reaching out to Canadian post-secondary institutions, ensuring the athletes' admissibility and proximity to training facilities for continued athletic development. The Refugee Athlete Support Program generously provided funding of US $18,000 per year, per athlete, for their resettlement. WUSC successfully secured additional funding to cover living expenses. Collaborating with the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), campuses facilitated connections with sporting associations and training opportunities for the athletes. WUSC then submitted sponsorship applications to the Canadian government through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, providing pre-departure support to the students awaiting their departure. Upon arrival, campuses warmly welcomed the refugee athletes, offering support in their transition, helping them acclimate to campus life, and connecting them with relevant sporting bodies in Canada.

The implementation of the good practice was facilitated by several key elements. Firstly, WUSC (World University Service of Canada) was able to capitalize on its well-established relationships with Canadian campuses who were already experienced in sponsoring refugees through the Student Refugee Program. This network provided essential admissions and integration support, enabling a smooth transition for the refugee athletes. Additionally, the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program in Canada provided the immigration pathway that enabled the athletes to arrive in Canada with permanent legal status. This legal foundation is crucial in providing refugees with a stable environment for their education and career development, and allows them to travel to international sporting competitions. To ensure financial support for the initiative WUSC leveraged existing scholarships for members of the Refugee Athlete Support Program that is managed by the Olympic Refuge Foundation (and funded through Olympic Solidarity) and sought philanthropic funds. These resources covered education expenses, living costs, and the financial requirements associated with training and participating in sporting events. Furthermore, the Olympic Refuge foundation connected us with the Canadian Olympic Committee which has enabled cooperation with the athletics departments of colleges and allowed refugee athletes to connect with the appropriate national and regional sporting bodies, supporting them to continue training and competing at a high-performance level. This collaborative effort streamlined the pathway for refugee athletes to access the necessary training and competitive opportunities to continue to cultivate their athletic skills in Canada.

"I never dreamed I’d be in Canada…Without sport and education, I’d never be here."

- Paulo Amotun Lokoro, Sheridan College student and Refugee Olympian

Refugee athletes in their sports clothes, sitting on steps and holding small Canadian flags on sticks

Partners involved

  • Olympic Refuge Foundation
  • Canadian Olympic Committee
  • Centennial College
  • Sheridan College

What challenges were encountered in delivering the project and how were they overcome?


  • Identifying funds to complement the scholarships and cover living expenses, training costs, and competition expenses.
  • Ensuring there were sufficient social, academic, and athletic supports upon arrival.
  • Connecting students to the appropriate sporting bodies and athletics departments to continue their training
  • Securing travel documents for the athletes so that they may travel to national and international competitions

How they were overcome

  • WUSC submitted appeals to foundations for additional resources to complement the scholarship funds, and leveraged existing partnerships with postsecondary institutions in Canada to secure additional funding.
  • Social support was provided through the WUSC campus group at the participating postsecondary institutions.
  • WUSC and the participating postsecondary institutions established new relationships with sporting bodies, and engaged their athletics departments to provide ongoing training opportunities, coaching, and guidance on potential competitions.
  • The postsecondary institutions supported the refugee athletes to apply for their Canadian travel document and supported their visa applications to countries where competitions were taking place.

"The dedication, resilience and tenacity that they have shown in the pursuit of their athletic and personal goals will contribute to their success both on and off the track. We are so pleased that these inspiring athletes have chosen the Sheridan learning community as they settle into life in Canada as permanent residents, and we look forward to supporting their journey."

- Maria Lucido Bezely, Sheridan College’s Dean of Students

Results of the Good Practice

  • 4 refugee athletes from the Tokyo 2020 Refugee Olympic Team have obtained a durable legal status in Canada, and an opportunity to pursue tertiary education.
  • 2 Canadian campuses and 3 regional/national sporting organizations have become more inclusive of refugee athletes.
  • A model has been piloted that connects refugees to sports-linked scholarships and a durable solution to displacement, with lessons learned that can inform a more sustainable and scaled program.
  • The opportunities created through the initiative provide an incentive for refugee athletes to complete their education, all while continuing their training for their elite sport.

In what way does the good practice meet one or more of the four objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees?

Objective 2: Enhance refugee self-reliance

By providing an opportunity for refugee athletes to continue developing their skills in sports, while simultaneously pursuing postsecondary education in fields that can lead to gainful employment, it empowers refugees to become more self-sufficient. The combination of education and athletic training equips them with valuable skills and knowledge, enhancing their capacity to support themselves and their families in the long term.

Objective 3: Expand access to third-country solutions

Secondly, this good practice actively expands access to third-country solutions. It does so by creating a durable pathway that leverages the unique combination of athletic skills and educational abilities possessed by refugees. The approach values athletic skills in a new model of skills-based pathways, which not only facilitates their integration into the host country but also makes them contributors to society. Finally, this collaborative model emphasizes that the responsibility of protecting and supporting refugees is a shared one, extending beyond traditional humanitarian agencies. It showcases the potential for various sectors, including sports, to contribute to the well-being and self-reliance of refugees.

"What Rose Nathike, Paulo Amotun, and James Nyang will remind the world on the Olympic stage in Tokyo, is that we have a collective responsibility to uphold the rights and help realize the potential of millions of refugees around the world. WUSC is pleased to collaborate with our partners to find innovative solutions for all refugees, and looks forward to welcoming Rose Nathike, Paulo Amotun, and James Nyang to Canada after the games"

- WUSC’s Executive Director, Chris Eaton

Next steps

While this initiative is presently made possible through partnerships with post-secondary institutions, it has great potential to be adapted to other sporting organizations to reach an even greater number of athletes. It also presents a model for displaced persons demonstrating other specialized skills beyond academics.

WUSC and our partners are seeking funds to expand the pilot in Canada to more campuses so that we can support a greater number of athletes globally. In addition, more resources are needed in order to map out opportunities and stakeholders in other third countries where sports-linked scholarships or employment opportunities may be possible.

Are there areas in which support would be required to continue and/or scale up your good practice?

  • Funds to scale and develop sports-linked complementary pathways in Canada, and globally: The potential for scale is immense, but resources that support efforts to engage, mobilize, and build the capacity of sporting organizations and other stakeholders to develop/offer educational and/or employment opportunities related to athletic ability are essential to do so.
  • Policies that enable refugee athletes to access a safe and legal pathway to pursue their studies or a paid sporting opportunity are critical.
  • Sporting associations globally need to be engaged to include refugee athletes in their sport and training programs.
  • Investments in sport development programs for refugees in first countries of asylum and the inclusion of refugees in national sport development programs to expand the pipeline of athletes who can qualify for a complementary pathway that is linked to their athletic abilities