For years, she lived undocumented and in the shadows. Now this U of T student and has a chance to study at Oxford — if she find the tuition money

Almeera Khalid was in sixth grade when she accompanied her parents to meet a refugee lawyer and to help translate why the family needed to seek asylum in the United States.

That’s the first time she realized she wasn’t Michigandan, let alone American — and it explained why there had been no school trips for her and her younger sisters, as well as why they had to live in the shadows and stay away from those in police uniforms.

“I remember sitting in our living room, pulling up my laptop and searching up, ‘What is an immigrant’ and ‘What does it mean to be undocumented?’” says Khalid, now 23, whose family resettled in Canada, first in Saskatchewan, in 2016 under a family sponsorship.

It’s her experience living on the margins of the law — 18 years in the suburb of Sterling Heights, Mich. — that has steered her interests in social justice, forced migration and government policies that contribute to the vulnerability of non-status migrants.

A recent University of Toronto graduate with a double major in ethics, society and law and socio-legal studies, Khalid says she was over the moon when she got an acceptance letter from Oxford University for her dream postgraduate program in forced migration and refugee studies. The program takes fewer than 20 students a year.

“I was frozen and sat there for an hour. I couldn’t believe I got accepted. I was just so proud of myself,” said Khalid, who has been involved with different advocacy groups, such as the Rights of Non-Status Women, Amnesty International and G(irls)20.

But the financial reality quickly sank it.

While Khalid has financed herself through her undergraduate education by working many part-time jobs, more than 35 hours a week, and has helped support her two younger sisters, the $49,000 tuition for the nine-month academic program was out of her reach.

Given the late offer that came from Oxford at the end of June, most scholarship applications were long overdue and Khalid said she didn’t qualify for the ones that remained.

Just as she was going to give up on the idea of going to Oxford, her friends and a former professor at U of T encouraged her to take one last shot by launching a crowdfunding campaign on July 22 to raise money to cover her tuition.

But Khalid will lose her spot with Oxford if she can’t reach her fundraising goal by the end of Aug. 6, the deadline set by the university.

“The opportunity for Almeera to go to Oxford isn’t just about graduate school. It is about one young woman’s ability to realize her potential, dream big, open doors and step into her own power in a world still stacked against people like her,” Petra Molnar, who met Khalid in 2017 as her faculty supervisor for a research project at U of T.

“Almeera is planning to return to Canada and go to law school. The legal profession needs diverse voices with thorough grounding in different disciplines. Almeera’s studies at Oxford will give her unparalleled access to ways of thinking, which will broaden her ability to be an effective and critical advocate in the years to come.”

If she had a chance to go to Oxford, said Khalid, she would like to study the gaps in existing international foreign and domestic policies around migrants, refugees and detention. She also wants to focus on forced displacement due to climate change, refugee protection and disaster risk reduction.

In 2000, Khalid’s parents fled political persecution in Pakistan and arrived in the United States, where they had an uncle. It took them years to get a refugee hearing but the claim was quickly refused and the family had to wait for a lengthy appeal that would take another eight years.

“We didn’t have any social insurance number. We didn’t have access to anything,” said Khalid, whose father worked cash jobs in stores and whose mother babysat to raise her and her two sisters, one of whom is now studying at U of T while the other is finishing high school.

“That’s the reality of the situation when you’re undocumented.”

In 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to delay deportation of non-status migrants who came to the U.S. as children and issued them work permits. But Khalid’s parents were hesitant to let her register for fear the family would be exposed and they would all get deported.

Growing up, studying hard and excelling in school was the only thing that Khalid felt was in her control.

“Education was my way out. I couldn’t control the fact that my family didn’t come from a lot of money. I couldn’t control the fact that I didn’t have status. But the one thing I could control was my academic excellence,” she said.

“A degree is going to change my life. Like, I want to go to the best of the best, which is going to be Oxford.”

While waiting for their refugee appeal, Khalid’s parents also applied for permanent residence in Canada with help from an aunt in Saskatchewan under a now-defunct family reunification program. They were accepted and arrived in Lloydminster on July 7, 2016.

The uprooting was tough for Khalid, as she was just graduating from high school and applying to college in the U.S., and had to scramble to find a university in Canada to start the fall semester. When she got a university admission offer in Toronto, her family decided to move here with her.

Mississauga turned out to be a great home to start a new life.

“I grew up in a very white community. I was the only brown person. My family was Muslim, very visibly Muslim. When I came to Canada, there’s lots of diversity in the areas where I lived,” said Khalid.

“That’s very relieving. It’s very nice to see that. And I think that’s how Canada has been very welcoming.”

In university, she was drawn to classes about how criminology, immigration, ethics, law and society interacted, and participated in research projects about people who have precarious immigration status.

“I feel for the people who are undocumented. I felt for a really long time really guilty that I made it out and I’m safe and secure,” Khalid said. “Now I have to do everything in my power to make sure that my people are not left behind.”

Molnar, one of Khalid’s references for her grad school application, said she was impressed with the young woman’s dedication, given her lived experience of having to navigate murky immigration regimes and the many difficulties her family has gone through over the years to find a permanent home.

“Almeera’s lived experience of systemic discrimination, poverty and trauma of having to navigate multiple legal systems at such a young age to secure immigration status for her family uniquely positions her at the forefront of social justice issues,” noted Molnar.

“She deserves the opportunity to explore all that she is capable of beyond the confines of limited economic means.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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