Ailissa Lew has seen her classes abruptly moved online and lost her housing because her roommate didn’t want her there after she got a cold. She’s at the end of her student loan, and a retail job she’d lined up for the end of term has disappeared for the moment.
But the 20-year-old student is not eligible for B.C.'s new $3.5-million fund aimed at helping postsecondary students during the COVID-19 pandemic. And she has no idea whether she can get benefits from any of the other provincial or federal programs created in recent weeks.
Ms. Lew is an international student, an American from a small town in Ohio who is in British Columbia for a one-year program at Vancouver Film School.
She has not found emergency assistance she qualifies for in the United States.
Thousands of international students in Canada, who have stayed here because travel was impossible or the situation at home is worse, are in similar straits. Postsecondary institutions scrambling to move classes online and deal with issues such as housing have had little time to address the needs of international students.
“Up to now, there is nothing really for those students,” said Carlo Handy Charles, a PhD student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., who has been monitoring the unique situation of international students.
The University of B.C. is providing information to international students about health insurance and options for financial assistance available through the institution.
Students often say they were unaware they might be eligible for government help.
The $3.5-million in postsecondary financial assistance that B.C. announced on Thursday is only for domestic B.C. students.
It’s not clear whether the province’s $500-a-month renter subsidy is available to non-domestic students, and the $1,000, one-time grant B.C. has promised to those in need says only that it is available to “B.C. residents.” Over the past two weeks, the province has said details are still being worked out.
Information on the federal government website about the Canada Emergency Response Benefit says it “may” be available to international students, but gives no details about the rules.
International students are eligible for employment insurance, but, again, many say they did not know that.
The federal government and provinces such as Alberta are suspending payments on student loans, but international students who are not supported by their families have student loans from their own countries or private lenders.
Student health insurance varies from place to place and is dependent on their continuing enrollment.
Almost 650,000 international students came to Canada in 2019, predominantly from South and East Asia, and they pay hefty tuition fees that help account for a significant portion of the revenues at many of the institutions they attend.
In Edmonton, Fabio Henao Caviedes, a third-year student at MacEwan University, depended on his income from a part-time job and his family in Columbia. But he has lost the money from both due to the pandemic. He said his family’s business was forced to close in compliance with local government policy, and the food service company in Edmonton where he worked recently let him go.
“Expenses keep coming, and without a source of income, I expect my situation [will] become increasingly challenging.”
Mr. Henao Caviedes said he is not eligible to apply for help from the federal emergency fund. Workers must have had income of at least $5,000 in 2019 or in the 12-month period preceding their application, but international students can only work up to 20 hours a week off campus. He said he did not earn $5,000 last year.
He said the decreasing value of the Colombian peso has aggravated his situation: His savings are worth less every day.
“It seems fair to think that as international students, [it] is our responsibility to fend for ourselves during these dire times, after all, we stated that we could be financially independent from Canada,” he said.
“However, COVID-19 has radically changed the economic landscape of almost every country worldwide, and the situation of international students becomes more dramatic every passing day.”
Shadi Hamidiaval, a business administration student at Langara College in South Vancouver, lost both of her part-time jobs on campus after the school closed two weeks ago.
“So stressful,” she said. She had already been facing financial strains, including the difficulty of getting money out of her home country of Iran due to U.S. sanctions.
As all courses have been moved online, Ms. Hamidiaval hoped the college could reduce the fees for international students, who pay nearly three to six times as much as domestic students, depending on the program.
According to Langara’s website, payment is due on April 23.
“It’s too much pressure,” she said. “After that payment, I am out.”
Last week, Ms. Hamidiaval, who will soon move in with a family friend, started to get food support from the college. She said the school has been giving students a bag of food once a week, including cans of vegetables, soups, and rice and noodles.
“They are not junk food. They are really helpful.”
Ms. Lew said she has had communication from the film school with information about classes and the process for extending her visa, if needed.
Some international students, writing in online forums, have said that it’s difficult or impossible to ask their families for money, since they already stretched themselves to send their children abroad.
Ms. Lew said she can’t see going to her great-grandparents, who raised her, for relief. She can’t fly home and move in with them because they both have serious health problems. And it would be hard for them to come up with money for both her and her brother, who is studying in Scotland.
“I have no answers,” she said.
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