Soraya Bellou and her family came to Canada from the Middle East in the hopes of a better life.
However, when her family fell apart and Bellou ended up in the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development she struggled chasing her academic dreams.
Now, she is thankful for the many supports she received along the way including support from the Youth Futures Education Fund that helped her financially through her post-secondary education.
Bellou, her parents and younger brother immigrated to B.C. in 2006 and settled in Maple Ridge when Bellou was in Grade 6.
At first things were alright, but her parents were having difficulty assimilating to the culture and getting jobs in their respective fields of employment.
Shortly after the move her parents separated and then divorced mostly, Bellou says, because of the financial stress put upon them and the stress of mental health challenges.
Her father was forced to return to Kuwait and her mother struggled raising two children on her own.
So at the age of 14, Bellou was put in the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
Instead of going into foster care, Bellou says she was fortunate to have made many friends whose families had recognized her situation, and they stepped up to take care of her for two to three months at a time until Bellou turned 16. This allowed her to stay at Thomas Haney secondary where she graduated from, making both the principal’s roll and honour roll during her time there.
On her 16th birthday Bellou was approved for independent living that is available for youth who qualify under the supervision and care of a social worker.
“It was very hard,” said Bellou.
“Honestly, I didn’t recognize quite how hard it was until I passed it and looked back. My Grade 11 and 12 years, the years I was on my own, independently living, I definitely tried to isolate myself. I’m a very social, bubbly and outgoing person but I also didn’t want to talk about he shame of what was going on,” Bellou continued.
“And I found that a lot of people didn’t understand or required a lot of explanation that I just wasn’t in a place to give mentally,” she said.
So, Bellou buried her head in her books and gives thanks now that she had that early drive and loved school because it helped her get where she is today.
Bellou went to UBC and worked almost full-time at two jobs while taking her courses.
It wasn’t until her third year of university that she discovered she was eligible for the Provincial Tuition Waiver Program that covers the costs of B.C. students who are former youth in care attending either full- or part-time studies at a B.C. public post-secondary institution, Native Education College or one of 10 eligible union trades training centres.
But although this program relieved her of the burden of tuition costs, there were other costs associated with getting a post-secondary education that were not covered like basic living expenses including rent, phone, internet, transportation and food.
According to the United Way, these costs can total almost $20,000 per year and are usually covered by a student’s family. The agency says that 92 per cent of B.C. parents with children under 30-years-old support them financially.
The Youth Futures Education fund bridges the gap for former youth in care, who often don’t have access to the same family supports. The agency says that the most common way students use Youth Futures funding is to buy books for school and that only four per cent of students who use the Youth Futures Education Fund withdraw from their studies.
Bellou received funding for the final two and a half years of her degree and used the money for rent and to purchase food and to finance any additional expenses associated with school like warm clothing and the cost of field trips.
Bellou graduated in May with a Bachelor of Science. She majored in biology and has a minor in health and society and one day hopes to pursue a career in the medical field.
Currently, she is is an ambassador for the United Way helping to raise awareness and more money for the programs that helped her succeed in life.
“They can do this too,” said Bellou of others who have aged out of the system.
“That they can fight past the trauma, the hardships that come with it and the challenges. There’s a brighter future at the end,” she said.