Uncertainty reigns for international students amid pandemic

Sikh Students’ Association offers one program for students to be supported in this time away from family. Courtesy of the SAA

What happens when you can’t simply go home?

If there is anything that the coronavirus has shown us in the few months since its emergence, it is that we really are all very different. Whether its students on various college campuses shouting racist slurs at their Asian colleagues or the want of toilet paper rolls in department and grocery stores all over the nation, what the coronavirus has been able to highlight is how, although we are all human, we have different priorities and ultimately, different realities.

For example, the effect the pandemic has on a middle-aged working-class Canadian citizen differs greatly to that of a Canadian student. We can even take it a step further and see how the effect differs from a Canadian student who is a citizen to that of an international student.

In the days following news of the university taking days off to figure out its next steps, many students in campus residence could be seen packing up and going home. Families showed up to pick up some students to take them home for social distancing and for some much-needed comfort during these tumultuous times. This, however, is not a luxury that is afforded to all.

Vibya Natana, a second-year social work student, is one of the many students who have the privilege of not only being in the country of their citizenship during this time, but who are also able to practice social distancing with their family.

“Times like these remind me of how fortunate I am for the sacrifices of so many working to protect us and also my own support system. Like many others, Canada has become home to my family in their search for a better life. What made it home was community support, especially during tough times. It gave them hope. In my eyes, this is more important than ever with what we are facing today,” Natana said.

For many of the international students left behind, the closest comfort they can get from their loved ones is through a WhatsApp or Skype call. The international students who were toying with the idea of booking that flight and making it home had a quick rethink when the Government of Canada restricted all foreigners flying in from any country except from the United States of America until June 30, 2020.

University of Regina Student Union (URSU) president and international student, Victor Adeolu Oriola, has also found the realities of being an international student to be especially trying during times like these.

“Several factors, like the cost of travel and potential immigration hassles, make going home sometimes unfeasible for international students. In light of the recent federal government edict that essentially restricts travel, international students, like me, once again realize just how far away from home we are. Times of crisis like these serve to highlight the incredible sacrifice and resolve necessary to leave your country of residence and place of comfort in service of obtaining a higher education,” Oriola said.

According to the Government of Canada’s official website, if your student visa is about to expire, you “are able to apply to extend their status online if they need to extend their status. A temporary resident who has applied to extend their status is allowed to remain in Canada until a decision is made on their new application, even if their initial status expires while they are waiting for that decision. This is called implied status.”

During this time, however, they are unable to “travel to a port of entry (POE) to apply directly to a border services officer. Travelling to a POE from inside Canada for the purpose of getting immigration services is not considered essential travel, and they will not receive these services.”

Apart from not being able to return upon exiting the country, other international students have to worry about what this means for the visa and study permit if it’s close to expiry. It is an unending rabbit hole of worry and concern further amplified by uncertain times and widespread panic.

For second-year human justice student, Rooky Jegede, not being able to connect with family during times like these has more severe consequences than homesickness.

“During times like these, nothing feels better than being with the ones you love and care about. Being continents away in the middle of a pandemic, with no option but to stay alone in a time where everyone else is apparently self-isolating themselves with their families, is such a recipe for depression and mental crisis.”

Echoing Jegede’s sentiments is first-year student, Abdalla Al Jaedy. He finds himself worried not only about his inability to be with his family, but also the realities that they are facing in his absence.

“To be honest, this whole pandemic makes me feel so sad. My parents are both in their mid-50s and I do not fully trust the healthcare system we have back home in Africa. I find myself always thinking about them and my whole family and worrying extensively. Like I wish I had the proper words to express how frustrated I am feeling right now. It feels like I am in a nightmare and I cannot wait to wake up,” Al Jaedy said.

As the world continues to grapple with how to handle the coronavirus and the university updates its responses to the ongoing pandemic, it is essential that the needs and concerns of international students are not lost in translation. The University of Regina does have a significant population of international students, and it is alarming that not many steps have been taking to specifically address their needs.

URSU will be hosting an URSU Cares Pantry at the Owl Multipurpose Room on Wednesday, Mar. 25 for students who are unable to afford groceries and essentials that they need now more than ever. The Sikh Student Association, in collaboration with the Regina Sikh Community has also launched a “No Hungry Tummy” initiative which provides free grocery items to new students with all safety measures.

Outside the university, another initiative that international students may find helpful is that of the self-organized support group, Caremongering YQR. According to the description on their Facebook page, the group was made for “sharing and organizing community resources in response to COVID-19 in Regina…. [I]t is also for redistribution of resources in the case that stockpiling prevents people from accessing basics.”

For students interested in reaching out to the Sikh Student Association, you can reach them at 306-209-4505. Reach out to an international student today. It will mean more than you know.

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