Vancouver teen who fled Iraq and then Trump heads to UBC with full-ride scholarship

·4 min read
Ashki Shkur, a Grade 12 student at Britannia Secondary School in Vancouver, is pictured in a school hallway on June 10. Shkur has won an $80,000 entrance scholarship to the University of British Columbia, along with several other scholarships. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Ashki Shkur, a Grade 12 student at Britannia Secondary School in Vancouver, is pictured in a school hallway on June 10. Shkur has won an $80,000 entrance scholarship to the University of British Columbia, along with several other scholarships. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Ashki Shkur's first glimpses of the Vancouver area came from the back of an RCMP cruiser after she and her family were arrested for walking across the U.S. border in search of asylum in 2017.

Now the 18-year-old Britannia Secondary student, originally from Iraqi Kurdistan, is headed to the University of British Columbia in the fall with dreams of becoming a surgeon and of a scholarship that fully covers her tuition and residence.

"It feels like a dream. This is all I've asked for. This is all I've worked for my whole life to be able to follow my dreams and to be able to attend university," Shkur told CBC.

She's been awarded an $80,000 Centennial Scholars Entrance Award, which she has accepted. She was also offered a $70,000 TD Scholarship for Community Leadership, a $40,000 Beedie Luminaries scholarship, a $29,000 Terry Fox Award and a number of other smaller scholarships, which will now go to other students.

Had she decided to attend Simon Fraser University in Burnaby instead, Shkur was granted scholarships that would have covered her tuition there as well.

"I really couldn't have done any of this without the community that I have at Britannia and the people that support me," Shkur said.

"When I first came here, as soon as I went to Britannia, I felt that sense of community that I never had back home."

Annie Danilko, president of the board of management for the Britannia Community Services Centre, where Shkur is also a board member, said it's no surprise to see the young woman having such success.

"The whole board was inspired by Ashki," Danilko said. "I didn't really know her history too much because she didn't really talk about it. She would talk instead about how she really wanted to give back to the community that she lives in because the community ... helped her so much."

Fears of deportation from the U.S.

Shkur, along with her parents, Ayub Nasralddin and Arazw Hama Ali and her younger sister Hanasa, joined a surge of irregular border crossings into Canada in 2017 after then-president Donald Trump announced a ban on people entering the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

They had left Iraq a little less than a year earlier, and Shkur said the plan was always to settle in Canada. She said as soon as her family landed in the U.S. in 2016, they hopped in a cab and headed for the border with Ontario to claim refugee status.

"I remember that was the only line that I knew in English, and I had to memorize it for a whole week. It was, 'Can we seek asylum?'" Shkur said.

But they were unaware of Canada's Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., which means refugee claimants are required to request asylum in the first "safe" country they land in. The family was turned back to the States and told they'd need to wait another year before trying to get into Canada.

They stayed in the U.S. almost long enough.

Ben Nelms/Reuters
Ben Nelms/Reuters

"Everything was great. My dad was working. We were going to school. And then President Donald Trump came," Shkur remembered. "We were afraid that we would get deported."

And so, the family crossed the border on foot near the Peace Arch crossing and were taken into custody.

Because they were a few days short of a full year, Shkur said, they had to request special consideration for permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. The family spent a year gathering letters of support from community members, teachers, employers and anyone else they could find in order to be approved.

'I really love being busy'

Now as she rounds out her final year at Britannia Secondary, Shkur is student council president and says she's usually at school from 8:40 a.m. until 6 p.m. every day, busy with school clubs and extracurriculars.

She spends some of her free time working with non-profits and serving on the board at the community centre.

Danilko, the board president, is Haida from Old Massett and said it's always been important for her to represent the voices of people who normally aren't heard, like Indigenous people, people with lower incomes and new immigrants.

She said it's clear Shkur shares that mission.

"When you have these very forward-thinking young people that are there, and they are fighting for the people that aren't being heard, they're changing things," Danilko said.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Shkur's family has added a new member since their arrival in B.C. — little sister Niya is now three.

"Everyone says she's exactly like me," Shkur said, laughing.

Her dad, whom she credits for her strong work ethic, works as a landscaper, and her other sister is in Grade 9 at Britannia. They're all permanent residents now, and the family hopes to apply for Canadian citizenship next year.

Now that high school is nearly over, and everything is in place for university, Shkur said she might take some time to relax and celebrate.

"I will try my best, but I really love being busy. I can't imagine not knowing what I'm going to be doing. I just can't," she said.