When he arrived in London in 2016, he had no home, no money and no food. But Sebastien Aka Kouakou, who lived as a refugee in Ghana before being accepted to do his PhD in Spanish and Ethnic Migration at Western University had a heart filled with hope. What’s more, he had a little help from some friends, says Sebastien, who now works in Western’s Department of Modern Languages and literatures.
The support he received from academic colleagues – the friend who “is like an angel” who covered his rent, groceries and living expenses when he first settled in London and the peer who helped him keep up with studies when he had an unexpected health issue – are what fuel Sebastien to continue helping others achieve their goals here, he says.
Originally from Côte d'Ivoire in West Africa, Sebastien was a peace activist who campaigned for non-violence among youth during a civil war that killed both his brother and father. He says his advocacy gave him a high profile that made him a target for threats, and after enduring nine years of war and surviving a shooting, he fled the country with a cousin in 2011.
As a refugee, Sebastien studied at the University of Ghana, but he was not able to legally work in that country, and so when a friend encouraged him to apply to do a PhD in Canada, he felt it was a good opportunity. After years of disruption and living in precarious conditions as a refugee, Sebastien says he feels safe in Canada. But he doesn’t take it for granted, using time between PhD work and studies to volunteer as an interpreter and help international students navigate the university system, he says.
Sebastien was awarded the 2018 Teaching Award of Excellence at Western University as a Spanish teaching assistant, and has been chosen as Ambassador of the Migrations and Ethnic Relations collaborative program at Western.
“The people who helped me gave me hope when I needed it. A way for me to express my gratitude, is to help others. I commit myself to doing volunteering . . . Life is possible when we are together,” says Sebastien. . “It makes me feel happy to be engaged in this community.”