International students stranded in Kingston

COVID-19 travel restrictions leave international students “fending for themselves” at Queen’s

Stacy Pinto, an international student from India, said Queen's efforts to support students stuck in Kingston have been "disappointing."
Journal File Photo

As countries close their borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many international students are facing the possibility of an unplanned summer in Canada.

At Queen’s, international enrolment accounts for 14.8 per cent of the full-time student population, with individuals coming from more than 123 countries around the world to study in Kingston.

When the University closed its physical learning spaces on March 16 and encouraged students to go home, many were left stranded in Kingston because of travel restrictions in their home country.

“[I]n the time I took to look for plane tickets, there was a rush [to get back to India] and I missed the window,” Aprajita Sarcar, a teaching fellow from Delhi who finished her PhD in January, said in an interview with The Journal. “Then, India closed its borders. That’s it: we’re not allowed to travel [there] until April 15th [at the earliest]. There are no flights coming in and out of the country.”

According to the India Bureau of Immigration, all incoming passenger traffic by air, land, and sea was barred as of March 18 with the exception of vehicles carrying essential goods and supplies.

The initial date for reopening the borders was April 15. However, it was recently pushed by the Government of India until May 3.

Sarcar, who was still in Kingston because her teaching contract finished in April, wasn’t in a position to leave overnight because she held multiple roles at Queen’s. Knowing there were other international students facing similar barriers, she made a post on the Overheard at Queen’s Facebook page and found a number of other students from India, including four individuals at Queen’s.

Her post caught the attention of Stacy Pinto (ArtSci ’20), who is also stranded in Kingston because of the lockdown in India.

“I’m graduating this year. I was supposed to [move] back home on May 1, but my flight got cancelled,” Pinto said in an interview with The Journal.

Pinto decided not to book an earlier flight after Queen’s closed its campus because it was too “chaotic” to move all of her belongings out of her house in Kingston in a single week.

Pinto was also nervous what the academic implications would be if she moved home. At that point, she didn’t know what remote learning would look like or if international students would be offered special accommodations.

After the lockdown was announced, she called the Indian Embassy and the High Commission of India to get more information about what she could do.

“My visa expires at the end of June and my lease ends on May 1. I don’t have a place to stay after [that],” Pinto said. “I didn’t plan for the finances to stay beyond May. I can’t afford rent, even if I do find a place to stay.”

Pinto explained that it’s expensive for students from India to live in Canada, in part because of the high currency exchange rate and the “exorbitant” international tuition fees.

When she told the Embassy and High Commission that her visa doesn’t expire until the end of June, both institutions advised her to wait and see how the situation develops.

“But I can’t afford to stay here, and I don’t think they’ve taken that into account,” Pinto said. “There are a lot of students who have finished their degrees, whose visas are expiring, and who can’t [afford to] stay in Canada.”

Pinto said it’s “disappointing” that Queen’s is not taking into account the situation of international students who are stuck here. While the University encouraged students to return home, she doesn’t feel they’ve made an effort to determine whether it’s actually possible for students to do that.

“I feel like [they should have] at least checked in with international students, maybe through a survey to assess what is actually happening with [them] right now and what their situations are,” Pinto said.

Both Pinto and Sarcar said it would be helpful if Queen’s put institutional pressure on the Indian Embassy and the High Commission of India to make sure Queen’s students are able to go home.

On Jan. 20, the University hosted the Acting High Commissioner of India, Anshuman Gaur, at Goodes Hall. Afterward, Pinto said he met with Indian international students at the Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC).

“When he came to the QUIC, he said he’d always be there for students,” Pinto said. “I want him to actually do something now that some of us are stranded here.”

Due to the closure of campus, the QUIC has transitioned their support online, including daily Zoom calls, virtual programming, and advising sessions.

When Pinto contacted the QUIC, they said they’d establish contact with the High Commission of India to ask about funding for students left in Canada during the lockdown, as well as the possibility of rescue flights. 

However, two weeks later, Pinto said the QUIC had only followed up with her to offer more information on extending her visa.

Air India has opened flight bookings from June 1 onwards, but Pinto has decided not to book a ticket until the Government of India makes a statement confirming when they will end the lockdown.

To help cover her expenses, Pinto has applied for the University’s COVID-19 Related Bursary Assistance, which provides short-term financial support for students. The University has also established a $1,500 emergency bursary for international graduate students.

International students are eligible to apply for the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) if they meet the qualifications. However, they are excluded from the student-specific Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB).

On April 22, the federal government also announced a temporary rule change to expand the work rights of international students, who are usually limited to working a maximum number of 20 hours per week during the academic year. The rule change will temporarily allow international students in Canada to work for essential services, including healthcare, critical infrastructure, and food supply.

In a statement to The Journal, Mark Green, provost and vice principal (academic), called the announcement “a welcome validation” of the contributions international students make to Canada and said the University is committed to supporting them during the “unprecedented” situation created by COVID-19.

The University has been in contact with international students staying in residence to determine whether they will continue to need lodging after May 1. Students living off-campus who need a place to stay can access residence accommodations at Brant House for a “reasonable rate,” according to Green. 

“Some students that need to remain here have proven to be quite resilient and have already made their own alternative arrangements,” Green added.

Green said individual faculties have been reaching out directly to international students living off-campus to offer support, although he didn’t specify what type of support is being offered through these communications.

He also pointed to a number of mental health resources available remotely to all students.

Despite efforts from the University, Sarcar called the situation a “double blow” for international students who she said are often “left fending for themselves” at Queen’s.

“[O]f all the emails that Principal Deane, the provosts, [and everyone else] are sending out, [there’s no mention of international students],” Sarcar said. “Queen’s has so many international students. Can you email them? Can you tell them what’s going on? They’re away from their families, they’re 18 or 19 years old. Come on, we’re also here.”

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