TROUBLING TIMES

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As international students bear the brunt of COVID-19, it also demonstrates that there is no shortage of help and altruism in our times and in our midst.

Indian student *Ananya is currently in his third and final year of studying Bachelor’s degree in Accounting. He used to drive for Uber until two weeks ago when the COVID-19 outbreak pulled a stop on his part-time job. Ananya shares his flat with two other fellow compatriots who are facing the same predicament with the closing down of most businesses.

Adding to their woe, their landlord has refused to relax their rents for at least 2-3 months until the situation improves a bit. The boys were told that “the bank was not putting a pause to payments”.

Asked how they planned to survive, Ananya said as of now they were helping one another with food and asking others for help. While his family has assured him of monetary help, Ananya understands it would also be hard for them to arrange the same.

Potentially, there are hundreds of other Indian students across Australia who have been thrown into uncertainty by the coronavirus pandemic. Some have even reported suffering from depression as the pandemic puts them in extreme financial crisis.

There are lots of other similar stories intersecting at this. A student couple in Canberra both lost their part-time jobs and are in a very desperate situation, reveals Karthik Arasu, who has created a team of volunteers called International Students Support Group. “Unfortunately, many more desperate calls for food are coming every day from students,” adds Arasu.

One of the prominent issues Indian students in Melbourne are facing is accommodation, says Jasvinder Sidhu, political activist and university lecturer, and one of the founding members of the Forum for International Students set up during this crisis. “Most of them don’t have leases in their names. It is usual for students to share houses in an informal arrangement. Some share with owner of the property and some share with someone who has a lease. Students do move a lot as well. So, accommodation is a real issue because evictions rule only applies to formally signed leases.”

The other issue is obviously cost of living, adds Sidhu. “I am aware the government is saying students should use funds they declared when applying for visa. However, the government never enforces that requirement. For example, if a pre-condition of visa was that students should open a bank account and then deposit funds they declared, then it should be OK but the government is aware that students do not have so much funds and due to the need for affordable labour, it ignores that enforcement.”

Currently, there are more than 76,000 Indian students across Australia and the coronavirus pandemic has left many in a state of quandary.
“Most students work in the retail sector and with everything shut down – shopping centres, pubs, hotels, restaurants – they all are facing huge difficulties for daily survival,” says Sunny Duggal, who is also part of the International Students’ Support Group.

Elvis Martin, a passionate young leader of Victoria advocating for social justice and currently the Ambassador of National Youth Commission, believes the main issue international students are facing is the fact that “some dodgy small employers are taking advantage of the situation and not paying enough money citing businesses being affected. This is a big challenge”.

And with private health insurance not covering anything related to coronavirus, “they are really scared. There is no support for international students,” rues Martin.

Says *Sushant, “I have spent three years here and I feel it has all gone down to waste. We just need a little help till this whole thing blows over. After that we will continue to contribute to the economy.”

Recently, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said international students facing financial difficulty because of the pandemic should go home. “If they’re not in a position to support themselves, then there is the alternative for them to return to their home countries. All students who come to Australia…have to give a warranty that they are able to support themselves for the first 12 months of their study. That is not an unreasonable expectation of the government, that students would be able to fulfil the commitment that they gave,” Morrison had said on April 3.

This did not go down well with education lobbyists and others who believe that the international education sector, which contributes more than $30 billion to the nation’s economy, must be a two -way street and that students must be given some assistance in a time like this.

A group of Federation of Indian Associations and Communities from different states have written to the government suggesting solutions to ease the plight of students. Among other things, they suggest “temporary fee discounts, rebates, and fee credits to the students, which will significantly reduce their financial burden and help them sustain and sail through this relatively short-term crisis period”. Flexibility on visa regulations, relaxation in enrolment conditions, expansion on scope of overseas students’ tuition fund, and some type of sustenance allowance for students who are in the process of getting permanent residency are the other solutions suggested.
Should the government announce emergency relief packages for international students?

Sidhu believes that the accountability of the government is toward those who are citizens and permanent residents. “Temporary residents, international students and visitors can’t expect the same level of support. This is true in principle. However, the question arises: would Australia then let people starve or be homeless? The issues become complex. We can request the government, but I don’t think we are in a position to demand. Governments at every level are trying their best. It is a fact that there are not enough resources, so we can perhaps work towards soft lobbying based on the principles of social justice and fairness.”

But in what could be termed as a consolation, Australia will allow international students access to retirement savings that they have accumulated while working in the country if they are facing financial difficulties due to the coronavirus. Applications for the early release of superannuation will be accepted through the government website from 20 April.

International students are able to work up to 40 hours per fortnight. Those working in aged care and as nurses have had these hours extended to support these critical sectors, said a statement from Dan Tehan, Minister for Education.

Some universities have also announced COVID-19 student packages. Monash University has announced a $15 million Student Compassionate and Hardship package for students suffering financial hardship. RMIT’s Student Hardship Assistance and Equity Scholarship funds have been expanded to provide up to $10 million in support to students impacted by COVID-19. And the University of Melbourne has introduced a new needs-based COVID- of up to $7500 per student, for those who are suffering hardship.

However, we are seeing students struggling for fees mainly from the TAFE sector which is pushing them to pay immediately, says Arasu.

COMMUNITY TO THE RESCUE
The past few weeks have shown that there is no shortage of help and altruism in our midst. The distress of international students has prompted various members of the Indian community to help them.

Kamaldip Kahma, a bodybuilder and qualified personal trainer and nutritionist, is using his wide social media presence to help students find jobs and deliver food. “There are lots of people who want to help but are not able to reach out. In fact, I have a long list now. So I take forward their messages and announce them on my Instagram, Facebook and TikTok posts; the response has been overwhelming.”

Since the pandemic broke out, Kahma has helped provide security jobs to at least 35 students, provided free accommodation to a few and delivered grocery to at least 200 students across Australia. “We are stocking whatever people are donating and delivering wherever required. We are just asking students to give their address and they don’t even have to meet us, we can leave their supplies outside their door. Our motive is not to embarrass anyone or take photos or videos. We just want to offer help. We have kept two food vans ready to deliver every weekend.”

Duggal, who has taken over the charge of looking at south-eastern suburbs of International Support Group, says it was receiving a message during dinner time about a group of girls who hadn’t eaten for days that prompted him to go out that moment to help. “It disturbed my inner peace and I made a pledge to not let anyone go hungry and do my best with utmost dedication.”

For the south-eastern suburbs, the International Support Group is storing groceries at the Centre of Oneness at Rowville and distributing to those students in dire need. These are delivered through a team of volunteers from Nirankari Mission of which Duggal is volunteer in-charge.

The Forum for International Students was set up after a number of Indian organisations started a think tank. Sidhu, who is one of the founding members and whose role is to give inputs in coordination and strategic planning, says, “The first phase for students is to connect with some sort of online medium. I suggest that students reach out and join their local groups. One forum cannot help all. After connect phase we will move to engage phase. That is happening now,” says Sidhu.

The Forum is also helping a few students who have gone into depression and organising their psychiatric assessment. “Indian origin doctors are helping in a big way here. So as time passes, the forum will become an advocacy and lobbying tool, a platform for students to engage and seek support. We will assist those in crisis such as anyone on the verge of losing accommodation, mental health issues and so on. We will try and help everyone who approaches us. In our core team, we have over 100 individuals and key community leaders. When needed, we will all push ourselves. Amit Singh Jadaun, Prashant Singh and Dr Yadu Singh are leading the advocacy side of the forum,” says Sidhu.

Raj Kumar, Consul General of India, Melbourne, thinks it would be convenient for organisations to come under one umbrella. “It would be better for us also to connect with one as there are too many community organisations. We are, of course, in touch with many organisations who are providing accommodation and food and sharing their details with those who need to contact them. Our doors are also opened for any assistance.”

Apart from the above-mentioned organisations, there are plenty of other groups and individuals who are contributing their bit to ease the plight of students. At a time like this when the world faces a public reckoning with a demonic disease called COVID-19, what better way than to help one another!

By Indira Laisram

(*Names changed on condition of anonymity)