Far From Home: The Plight of International Students Stranded in Australia
Picture this. You board a plane, neck pillow in hand, ready to fly to Australia. When the slightly sickening smell of 450 humans jettisoned through the air subsides you find yourself in the Arrivals terminal at Sydney Airport. You then board a bus for a three-hour trip to Canberra. You step off and breathe in the fresh air. This is what adventure feels like.
You’re an international student, far from home but ready, excited, and somewhat apprehensive for what challenges you will face. Then, suddenly, the world throws a pandemic square at your jaw. You’re stuck in a foreign country unable to travel home.
What do you do? What can you do…?
International students already have a rough time studying abroad. Loneliness, pressure from family, language and financial difficulties. Education is Australia’s fourth-largest export yet, according to the Australian Psychological Society International students report worse mental health than their domestic counterparts. This is linked to being away from home. Suddenly, that family support system is no longer available. While social media aids in making the gap feel smaller, isolation still undeniably exists. Then COVID arrives and adds a whole new dimension.
When Australian borders began to close in February most international students decided to return home. Frontiers Of Psychology reported that those who remained here experienced increased levels of stress and insomnia.
The Australian Front – Early strategy.
‘How Bad Can It Be?’
The Chinese Government reported to the World Health Organisation on New Year’s Eve 2019, that an unknown virus, with 27 cases so far, was under investigation. At the time much of south-eastern Australia was in the midst of a historic bushfire season.
Perhaps it was the smoke haze that enabled the worrying signs emanating from Wuhan to slip under the radar. It’s somewhat understandable that when I ask, ‘Do you remember where you were when you first heard about COVID-19?’ my interviewees don’t cite a New Year’s Eve party.
In January 2020, Arushi was hosting her family who were briefly visiting. Smoke from nearby fires shocked them. She says that the virus was just ‘A far off thing happening in China’.
Amogh was home in the Philippines. He initially dismissed COVID-19 as ‘one of those weird spam posts’ on his Facebook feed. It was only when he travelled into Australia and was greeted with news that WHO had declared a global health emergency that he thought:
‘Holy shit. This is serious.’
Paul arrived in Australia from Vietnam on January 31st. As an academic (working on his second Master’s in business) it is unsurprising that his first instinct was to investigate.
‘I read into COVID as more of a thing of curiosity than alarm. How bad can this be?’.
In February Australia began closing its international borders.
Arushi, Amogh and Paul realised this was a bit more serious than they first thought. With borders closed they felt further isolated.
When asked about this time, Arushi’s smile, and cheerful laugh dissipate. Its clear anxious feelings lie beneath her sunny façade. She was worried about her parents in Qatar. They are in their early sixties with underlying health issues.
‘It was a moment when I felt completely lost. I felt constant sorrow and I didn’t know when I was going to see my family again.’
Paul was tied up trying to get his visa when he first heard about COVID. He had been working at the Australian National University as a tutor but, for reasons unclear to him, this wasn’t recognised. His right to stay in Australia was being questioned. He knew there was a possibility he would have to leave and travel back to Vietnam while his visa was sorted. Instead, he dug his heels in and applied to do a second master’s degree. ‘I was frustrated, by the time lockdown was announced, though I had gotten my scholarship for my masters’ he said.
Amogh didn’t think too much of it. He was busy. His family live in the Philippines but are not citizens, having emigrated from India. He concedes that ‘It was uncertain’. but he still didn’t think that he wouldn’t be able to visit his family in midsemester break. ‘I would see my family then’, he says.
This meant if he did go back, he would only be on a two-week vacation visa. It wasn’t worth it. Besides, this wouldn’t last……. right?
Cases Rise in Asia.
‘It was not being there that was worse’.
Amogh, Arushi and Paul saw huge numbers of cases in their homelands. While Arushi’s folks currently reside in Qatar, their home is in India. Paul comes from the chaotic, scooter infested streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Amogh calls the Philippines home. While all three made the choice early on to remain in Australia, when cases increased back home, they felt a sense of helplessness.
According to Paul the Vietnamese Government’s strategy to combat the Delta strain is different to the western nations. At the time of our most recent interview, in late August, military had been sent to enforce the lockdown in Ho Chi Minh which was averaging 10,680 cases per week. He said while it worries him that such a hard line was taken, ‘there’s actually a sense of solidarity’. He continues:
‘Vietnamese respect disease – respect the enemy kind of thing. Vietnam has always been very vigilant when it comes to diseases because we don’t have the (healthcare) capacity, we never have.’
Arushi says she was less worried about her parents because Qatar has a good healthcare system. However, when cases rose steeply in India in April 2021, Arushi feared the worst for her extended family and friends. She admits that it was, ‘the scariest time in my life’.
‘Every single household that I know of had someone die or who was in a critical condition’
The hardest thing she had to overcome, was the death of her closest friend’s father, who she says was ‘like a second father for me’. When she first learned the news, she ‘did not know what to do. Do I call and say that I am sorry?’. It was a difficult time as she attempted to comfort folks back home who seemed to be dealing with a new death every day. ‘It was not being there that was worse.’, a constant state of helplessness.
The Philippines in late August was experiencing a shortage of nurses while averaging over 14,500 cases a day. Amogh was stuck in his college room. ‘What really sucked was a lot of it was out of control!’ He puts his head in his hands and takes a deep breath. Pure frustration.
He goes on to tell me:
‘I was really worried about my family. They were running out of vaccines. They got them so late.’.
Dealing with the gap.
‘I’m showing early signs of depression’
As many cities in Australia were plunged into another lockdown, more international students left our shores. Arushi, Amogh and Paul remain here, hoping to soon venture onto campus to see their professors.
I ask them what they miss most about their families. Mum’s cooking seems to be the number one thing. How are they dealing without that physical and intimate family love? The home-cooked meals. The lame Dad jokes. Even the sibling rivalry!
Paul feels lucky. Historically he’s never struggled with loneliness, having lived abroad for several years now. This latest lockdown hit him hard though. His younger sister moved in with him a few months ago. He says:
‘It’s been a blessing disguise, it really has.’
Similarly, Amogh doesn’t mind solitude but this time around he’s thankful he lives in a student residency on ANU campus. “People are constantly looking after you. (Senior Residents) are constantly messaging and asking, ‘hey are you okay?’… it helps.”
For Arushi it’s been particularly hard. She’s struggled with her decision to stay in Australia with so much happening in India and Qatar. “I’m showing early signs of depression,” she says. Yet, she’s got a tight grip on her goals. Her master’s thesis is important, and she refuses to let the pandemic derail it. She’s taken steps to keep herself sane. Zoom calls home to family and friends are her lifeline.
A hopeful future
The trials and tribulations of the past two years could not have been predicted or even imagined. As governments negotiate the way forward, Arushi, Paul and Amogh look towards the future with a sense of hope.
Amogh will be graduating, starting a full-time job, and moving out of the student residence he’s spent lockdown in. He’s keen for the challenge saying that ‘it’ll be a few super crazy and fun next few months.’.
Arushi’s also got her eyes on graduating in the next few months and is hopeful that her parents will be able to attend her graduation.
Paul on the other hand just wants to get his visa sorted and stop living from day to day. A sense of stability and a second master’s degree.
‘I hope to start thinking further ahead than just the next day’.
Suffice to say that after learning to dodge the punches of the pandemic, these students can and will overcome anything.