Aboubakar Idriss, known as Abkar, is one of a kind. He’s a college teacher who has provided thousands of scholarships for students around the world. He’s a social media influencer with nearly 700k followers on YouTube. And, he’s a former refugee.
While Abkar now calls Victoria B.C., Canada home, he was born in the north-central African country of Chad in 1979. During that time, civil war ravaged the country—a byproduct of disruption from colonization and independence in 1960. The war devastated his village and his parents were forced to flee with him and his two siblings. They crossed Sudan by bus, the Red Sea by boat, and after a ~3600km journey, eventually arrived in Saudi Arabia for safety. Abkar’s early years were spent as an undocumented refugee in Saudi Arabia, a hard life and one without access to services or basic rights.
Abkar always wanted to attend school, but it wasn’t in the cards for him as a child. “When you are thinking about what you are going to eat tomorrow—you don’t know what you’re going to eat—it’s very difficult to think about taking your kids to school. You’re trying to survive, you’re trying to feed them. Because of that, my parents had different priorities. And because of that, school was not one of them,” he says.
So at 12 years old, while working to help support his family, Abkar decided he had to find a way to access education for himself. Too old to attend a ‘normal’ school for kids his own age, he visited the local night school for adults. The average age of the students was between 50 and 60, but Abkar saw an opportunity.
“I walked up to the night school and the first teacher who met me told me that night school is only for adults,” Abkar recalls. “He asked me why I wasn’t in a normal school. But I said that I wanted to enroll. He said, ‘Okay go back home, get your papers, and let’s see what we can do.’” Abkar was still undocumented and didn’t have legal status, but he asked his father for help. Abkar’s father handed over his own documentation, hoping Abkar could use it to register. It was a risk. “The teacher looked at them, and he knew I didn’t have anything. But he went to the headmaster—I’m not sure what he told him—but he somehow enrolled me. So I started school.”
A fast-tracked program, Abkar finished night school in three years. He started middle school a few years older than the other children, but that was doable. “I was lucky,” he says. “Most of my peers were never able to attend school at all.”
When Abkar graduated high school, he knew he wanted to further his education. But there was another hurdle. At that time, non-Saudi citizens could not attend post-secondary schools in Saudi Arabia.
Abkar outlined a few priorities for what he wanted from an education—learning English being the main one. But there were limited resources to help him find an affordable program outside of Saudi Arabia to do that. “I searched everywhere; I tried to find information, but it was very difficult. There were no mentors, and the internet wasn’t really available. So I struggled to find options.”
To make a long story short, he says, he eventually found two potential programs: one in Malaysia and one in Germany. The Malaysian university had tuition fees, the German one didn’t. “But I didn’t want to learn German,” he says. “I really wanted to learn English.” The fees for the Malaysian program were $8,000 per year for a four-year program, and Abkar had $600. “But I knew not going wasn’t an option,” he says. “So I just went. I bought a one-way ticket and I went.”
To fund his education, Abkar ended up getting a scholarship during his program, which helped cover his tuition. To cover his living expenses, his brother worked full-time back home in Saudi Arabia and sent him money. After four years and a culmination of opportunity, perseverance, and support, Abkar successfully graduated.
Feeling inspired and motivated, he wanted to help other people access these education opportunities, too. So in 2005, he started a blog. He began to gather the research that he wished he had had access to when he was looking for post-secondary programs, such as information about scholarships and other educational opportunities, as well as his own reflections and insights.
“I realized very early on that it can take one college graduate to take that entire family out of poverty. So that made me want to spread awareness about education opportunities.”
From a young age, Abkar knew of the power of education. “I realized very early on that it can take one college graduate to take that entire family out of poverty. So that made me want to spread awareness about education opportunities.” He targeted his blog to those who he felt needed that support: his own people from Chad, hoping to help lift more young people, and subsequently, their families, out of poverty.
But a few years after he started blogging, he realized he wasn’t just speaking to his country. He noticed his followers were from other parts of the world, such as Morocco, Iraq, and Syria. And it didn’t stop there, changing with a video he made in 2012 about how he learned to speak English.
Time and time again, Abkar was asked how he had learned English. He found it harder to write in English than to speak it, so in 2012, he recorded a video explaining it. He tried to embed the video in his blog, but the file was too large. He uploaded it to YouTube, added the link to his blog, and forgot about it.
A couple of years later, he was watching YouTube when he remembered that he had a video on there, too. He clicked it and it had 50,000 views. In shock, he checked his own channel: 17,000 subscribers. “Who are all these people?” he says he thought to himself, smiling as he reflected on that moment. “How did they find me?” Today, that video has over 1 million views, a number high for YouTube and even higher for content about education. “Less interesting than cat videos,” he laughs. “So I’m very happy and proud of that achievement.”
At that moment, Abkar realized social media’s influence—and especially video. Abkar then began providing information about education opportunities on YouTube instead of his blog. Over time, he started to partner with universities to offer scholarships directly through his YouTube channel.
“There is huge power in information,” says Abkar. “I try to source that information for people and provide them with resources. And with that information, many people end up changing their lives.”
Less than a decade since he launched his channel, he now has nearly 700k subscribers, ~500 videos, and averages 30k-50k views per video. Most importantly, he has offered over 3500 scholarships directly through YouTube. He has connected eligible students from around the world with scholarships for universities in Canada, the USA, Turkey, Malaysia, South Africa, and many other countries. Through social media, he has also managed to raise funds for students who have experienced hardships, such as refugees, to help them cover their education and living expenses. So far, he has raised funds for students from Sudan, Morocco, and Yemen, who have since graduated.
Social media allows him to deliver information quickly and accessibly, and connect with students who may face challenges finding this information otherwise. “There is huge power in information,” says Abkar. “I try to source that information for people and provide them with resources. And with that information, many people end up changing their lives.”
Education changed Abkar’s life. One factor that helped him get to where he is now was the opportunities that people in his life, like his father and the night school teacher, afforded him. However, another critical factor to Abkar’s success was his sheer perseverance. He tries to instill that in his social media followers—and anyone he speaks to—too. He reminds them that they are valuable, important, and capable—all they need is an opportunity. And this mentality becomes a domino effect. Once he helps one student, they help their own community. “Once the students graduate,” Abkar says, “many of them come back and help their communities through mentorship and other forms of educational and financial support.”
Abkar is making a huge difference around the world, and he is deservedly renowned for it. Today, he tells stories about filling auditoriums around the world and being recognized by strangers in a London airport. But to him, that’s not what matters. What’s most important is getting education into the hands of people that need it.
His next plan? Creating his own university, a dream that is not far away. For Abkar, and all the young people he has helped, no dream is out of reach—for the thousands of students who have gotten a scholarship because of him and the thousands more who are yet to come.