Khalil Header

When Youth Unlimited field worker, Arlene Friesen, met Khalil, a 17-year old Sudanese refugee, his father had left their family in dire straits to fend for themselves. As the oldest of four, Khalil was trying to help his mom make ends meet by working under-the-table labour jobs at exploitive wages, all while attending high school.

It was at the learning centre at an alternative Surrey school where the two first met. Arlene has a knack for spotting struggling students, and a gift for supporting even the most vulnerable and difficult students. After 20 years of working as administrative support staff in the Surrey school district, Arlene realized that if she wanted to reach out relationally to vulnerable students, making lasting change possible, she needed to go on the front lines, as a Youth Unlimited youth worker. So at age 50 she made the switch. And because of her adaptable role, Arlene was uniquely positioned to support and advocate for Khalil.

Arlene helped Khalil connect to YU through a sponsored YU surf trip to Tofino, made possible thanks to generous YU partners. There, staff learned of the seriousness of his predicament.



Khalil was born in northwestern Africa, in a village near Khartoum in the Republic of Sudan. “We lived in the midst of a lot of poverty,” he explains, “but we didn’t really understand the difference between rich and poor since we didn’t have money.”

Due to increasingly dangerous conflict in the country, Khalil’s family fled to Egypt in 2003, where they could file with the UN Refugee Agency and flee to Canada.

The transition to life in Canada, however, was difficult. Khalil’s father particularly struggled, developing dangerous habits and addictions and eventually abandoning the family. When he left—in an act of vengeance—he stole all the children’s documents that they needed to work and prove legal status in Canada.

“He was fighting his own demons,” Khalil explains, “but in the process he left us pretty helpless. We didn’t have many options. My mom worked three jobs trying to keep food on the table, so I took whatever work I could to try to help out.”

Khalil made five dollars an hour as a night cashier at a corner store. “I decided that at the end of the day, pay is pay,” says Khalil. “Even though I was getting underpaid I was still able to do something to help my family. Either I do something or I do nothing, and sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. It’s life, right?”



As a teenager, Khalil was not yet fully attuned to his bleak future of low opportunity and constant risk of deportation without official papers. But Arlene knew— and she was determined to help change that and fought for justice alongside Khalil.

“It was so hard to watch sometimes,” says Arlene. “How a few pieces of paper could mean the difference between a fair and unfair wage or the possibility of finishing school. It was so tough seeing him be taken advantage of.” Khalil says without Arlene he would have given up. “Through it all, Arlene was always there encouraging and helping me to keep going.”

In May, after “stops and starts and almost giving up,” Khalil and his sisters officially received the necessary government documentation, that affirmed their legal status and ability to work in Canada.



Because of years of survival work, Khalil had barely attended high school, to the point of missing an entire year, but with perseverance and support from YU staff, in June 2016, he crossed the stage and accepted his high school diploma, with Arlene cheering in the crowd.

“It was a hard journey,” says Khalil. “I often lost hope that I’d ever get my IDs or finish school and gave up a lot, but Arlene was consistent in helping me. She was always connecting me to the right people and forms and giving me the encouragement I needed.”

So what’s it like to be a proven legal immigrant and a Canadian high school graduate?

“It’s a dream come true,” he says. “I have a whole new world of possibility in front of me now and a new ability to take care of my family. Before, I had no hope, but now, I can look forward again.”