Local group keeping international students warm with winter coats

Many international students don’t have the appropriate clothing when they first move to Canada. That's why the Ottawa chapter of Khalsa Aid held a winter coat drive to outfit nearly 60 international students with the right gear.

Khalsa Aid also equipping students with mental health support and other resources

Roommates Srikar Nelanuthala, left, and Shivayashwanth Chikkondra say they did their best to prepare for their first Ottawa winter, but that the cold is beyond what they imagined. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

Srikar Nelanuthala is still getting used to Ottawa's harsh winter weather, but he's grateful he now has the right gear to keep him warm. 

The 23-year-old is an international student from India, working to get his master's degree in mechanical engineering from Carleton University.

He's also one of about 60 students who received a new winter coat this weekend from the Ottawa chapter of Khalsa Aid, an international Sikh humanitarian agency. 

"It means a lot for us to survive in this kind of harsh winter," Nelanuthala said. 

While Nelanuthala did his best to be prepared for Canada's cold climate, he was limited to what was available in his hometown — never mind trying to fit a weather-appropriate puffy jacket in finite suitcase space. 

He was outfitted by Khalsa Aid along with his roommate, Shivayashwanth Chikkondra. The two found out about the winter coat drive thanks to social media.

Chikkondra said he thought he knew what to expect from an Ottawa winter thanks to Google and YouTube, but it still took him by surprise.

"It's a very beautiful country, but the winters are very harsh," he said. "So it will take some time to get accustomed."

Khalsa Aid volunteer Gur Simar handed out nearly 60 winter coats to international students in need of weather-appropriate attire. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC )

'The least we could do'

Many international students don't have appropriate clothing when they first move to Canada, said Gobind Singh, a volunteer project manager with the Ottawa chapter of Khalsa Aid.

Singh, who came to Ottawa as an international student about six years ago, recounted how his own most challenging days involved waiting for buses in a coat that wasn't warm enough. 

"Any winter jacket that we buy from other countries, those are not well equipped for the Canadian winters," he told CBC Radio's All In A Day. "They're more like fall jackets."

International students are already paying significantly higher fees, he added, and there's a cap on the number of hours they can work each week to make a dent in their expenses.

"In order to make ends meet, they need some support. So this is the least we could do," he said. 

Not just about clothing

COVID-19 lockdowns have also prevented international students from building a sense of community, Singh said, so he took the coat drive as an opportunity to equip them with other resources.

Those include information about where to find networking opportunities, immigration guidance and mental health support.

"There is already a challenge that they are moving to another country and moving away from family," Singh said.

"And on top of that, if they are not able to spend time with their friends, it's definitely a tough time."

With files from All in a Day