NL·Fed Up

Hundreds of MUN international students needed help for food during the pandemic. Some still do

When the pandemic hit, Ariyana Maria Gomes was isolated and dealing with stress of the unknown, all while half a world away from home. And she wasn't the only one.

Memorial University asking for more donations to top up emergency pandemic fund

Memorial University student Ariyana Maria Gomes needed emergency help for food and rent during the pandemic. She is one of hundreds who found themselves in a similar situation. (Submitted by Ariyana Maria Gomes )

When the pandemic hit, Ariyana Maria Gomes was alone in St. John's.

She faced a myriad of unknowns, like how she would afford groceries and rent, amid the stress of trying to stay healthy so far from her home in Bangladesh.

"It was very little interaction with people. So that really affected me mentally. I was all alone completely in my house," she said.

"And the other thing was there was a financial crisis as well."

Gomes is one of hundreds of international students at Memorial University who, in the span of the last few months, needed some form of financial assistance after the pandemic thrust them into situations no one could have planned for, and found themselves facing food insecurity. 

Because of their unique status, living in Canada on student visas, many were unable to get emergency federal funding available to other students. 

Gomes also failed to qualify for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit because she didn't make the minimum $5,000 in the 12 months leading up to the pandemic. 

Lynn Walsh, the manager of MUN's Internationalization Office, says the university is hoping more faculty, staff and alumni donate to an emergency fund set up to help students during the pandemic. (Submitted by Lynn Walsh )

For Gomes, it was the culmination of a number of unfortunate events all at once. First, she lost her job because of the shutdown. Then, her lifeline back home couldn't send help as the pandemic interrupted international bank transactions.

"It was very difficult to send money. My mother couldn't send money to me for about a month and I did not have a lot of savings," she said. 

Emergency help

Gomes did what she could to get by. She came to an arrangement with her landlord for late rent payment and then received help from NL Eats, a local food bank that delivers. 

She also got help from the university, with a $100 gift card for groceries. It came from an emergency fund set up by the university. 

Gomes said without the hamper and gift card she doesn't know what she would have done. 

"I honestly have no idea. I think if that did not happen, I would have actually had to really go door to door or email random people about help," she said. 

In fact, her mom had been trying to figure out a similar plan from Bangladesh, trying to make arrangements with people the family knew in other parts of Canada who could potentially lend Gomes some money so she wouldn't end up on the streets.

Bryn de Chastelain is the chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations. (Submitted by Bryn de Chastelain )

Pandemic needs persist

According to MUN's Internationalization Office, 508 international students needed emergency funding during the pandemic. Forty-one Canadian students required assistance as well. 

Lynn Walsh, the manager of the office, said some students lost jobs, others couldn't physically return to their home countries because of border shutdowns and others couldn't get money sent to them because of situations in their home countries. 

Walsh also said that an emergency fund set up with donations from faculty, staff and alumni — totalling about $190,000 — has been distributed.

The university is hoping to get more donations.

"There are still students that are in need of support. The months don't change, right? Your rent and the needs you have for June and July and August are going to continue," said Walsh. 

The issue is not just a provincial one but a national problem as well. 

Fed Up is a collaboration between CBC N.L. and Food First NL, the province’s not-for-profit organization that works to improve access to healthy, safe and culturally appropriate food.

"We're hearing from a number of our members that a lot of international students that maybe are stuck in Canada and unable to go home, or who have decided to stay in these communities amid COVID-19, are really struggling to keep their heads about water," said Bryn de Chastelain, chair of the Canadian Alliance Student Association, a non-profit group that advocates for student support.

De Chastelain said his association is calling on the federal government to extend the emergency student benefit to international students. 

"We know that international students contribute billions of dollars to the Canadian economy and they add a tremendous amount of value to our university classrooms and the campus experience," he said. 

Gomes is among those ranks, and as public health restrictions ease in Newfoundland and Labrador, things are finally getting back to normal for her.

She's working again, and her mom can now send money if she needs it. But the pandemic has shown just how precarious an international student's situation can become.

Fed Up is a series by CBC NL, in collaboration with Food First NL, exploring the issues surrounding food insecurity and why many people in the province struggle to access food.

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