Pandemic isolation takes on whole new meaning in a university dorm

International students who have spent two months in campus residences at Université Laval are avoiding all contact with the outside world because they fear having a case of COVID-19 inside the residence would mean losing their only home in Quebec.

120 international students living in residence at Université Laval depend on community food bank

Laurent Francis Ngoumou, a doctoral student at Université Laval, says international students left in residence after the campus shut down experienced stress and isolation. (Submitted by Laurent Francis Ngoumou)

When Laurent Francis Ngoumou was asked to check in on his fellow international students living in residence at Université Laval, the last thing he thought he'd hear was that people were going hungry.

Ngoumou is a doctoral student in social work, originally from Cameroon, who specializes in immigration issues. He acts as a big brother figure to younger international students who live on campus.

When COVID-19 hit Quebec, Ngoumou could see people struggling, far from home with no support system.

In mid-March, the Quebec government decreed the closure of universities. Université Laval asked the thousands of students in its residences to move home or off campus. 

Two-thirds of them left. But among the other third were many international students, who were watching borders close and apartment rents rise. 

Université Laval finally decided to keep its residences open for about 700 students who didn't have other options, but public health officials put in place a list of rules: no visits, no socializing, and strict physical distancing in common areas.

There were no guarantees the residences would stay open past the end of session. If at any point there was an outbreak of COVID-19, the rooms could be emptied. 

Ngoumou said having the threat of expulsion hanging over their heads meant the students were constantly worried.

"People didn't want to go out. They didn't want to be in contact with other people."

Students ended up staying in their rooms for fear of being infected, kicked out, and ending up on the street, Ngoumou said. That meant they also weren't going to the grocery store.

On April 11, Ngoumou got a call from a local Quebec City coalition of community groups called SOS Ensemble Quebec, which was offering emergency aid to people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The organization worked out the logistics with university administration to start weekly grocery deliveries. They started with 60 students, a number that has since ballooned to 120.

Ngoumou said the need for food aid points to the precarious situation students left in residence have been living for the past two months. 

Cooking, sleeping, eating in 100 square feet

Noor is an Iranian doctoral student who lives in the largest of the Laval residences, Pavillon Alphonse-Marie-Parent.

CBC has agreed to use a pseudonym in order to protect her identity, because she had concerns about her academic future.

Her room, a 100-square-foot space with a desk, a bed, and a sink, is where she has been making her meals and eating alone for weeks to avoid getting sick.

Noor finally started making appointments with other friends in residence to go out and walk together, two metres apart. 

Noor, an Iranian doctoral student at Université Laval, has been living alone in her dorm for weeks to avoid getting sick. (Radio-Canada)

"It's the only way we can communicate and talk with each other. You don't know what will happen. And you're alone."

Noor has been preparing for her oral doctoral exam — which took place the week of May 11 — while in lockdown. It went well, but she said she would have been in a better place if the rules had permitted her and her friends to gather (at a distance) in residence lounges at the end of their long days. 

Threat of expulsion leads to isolation

Ngoumou said the threat of expulsion from residence has only added to the worry for international students, many of whom have families in countries hit hard by the pandemic.

Some have temporary financial problems because banks back home closed, causing delays in money transfers.

Others counted on revenue from jobs on campus — in the cafeteria or at the PEPS, Laval's sports facility — lost when the university closed down.

In response to a query from the CBC, a Université Laval spokesperson said the school has established a COVID-19 emergency fund, which had distributed $900,000 in aid to 1,138 students as of last week.

But there was no indication how many recipients are non-Canadians.

The spokesperson said the university also created a "support cell" of professionals offering logistical, financial and psychological help. An email was sent to students in residence, offering them the opportunity to make an appointment. 

For Ngoumou, that approach shows a lack of understanding. He said support staff should have met with people living in residence face-to-face rather than assuming everything was fine because no one was complaining.

Students feeling watched

Shortly after campus security was assigned to enforce public health measures, AELIÈS, Laval's graduate student association, started getting complaints.

"What we heard is that students were feeling watched in the common areas," said Nicolas Pouliot, the association's president.

"They seemed to be worried that there were always security agents checking to see if they were respecting the rules."

AELIÈS took the concerns to the administration, and Pouliot said there was some easing of surveillance.

Université Laval confirmed that over the last eight weeks, 20 students have been asked to leave their rooms because of non-compliance with the rules. 

A reprieve for the summer

Université Laval's vice-rector for student affairs announced on May 12 that students should be allowed to stay in their residence rooms through summer.

Robert Beauregard said public health has the last word, but that there was "no reason to anticipate" the residences would be cleared. 

A spokesperson for the university also confirmed to CBC that 50 ensuite residence rooms could be used to isolate any student who tests positive for COVID-19, eliminating the need to ask everyone to leave.

A coalition of community organizations called SOS Ensemble Québec has been making grocery deliveries for the past seven weeks to about 120 students who are in residences on Université Laval’s campus. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

Noor has already decided she's going to move off campus into a shared apartment with friends. She said not knowing if she'll be able to stay in her room has been too stressful.

She's also been telling her family in Iran that everything is fine, even if the past two months have been very difficult. Now she just wants to see them before she continues her studies.

"I hope the borders become open and I can go to my family and then come back. That's the only thing I really look forward to."

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