04/07/2020 11:26 EDT | Updated 04/07/2020 11:44 EDT

International Students In Canada Navigate Pandemic Without Their Families

Accessing health care is one of the many challenges international students face amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tom Werner via Getty Images
International students face unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sheryl Tak had a decision to make. 

In the middle of March, after the World Health Organization declared the spread of the novel coronavirus a pandemic, the Canadian government closed its border — at first to anyone except U.S. residents. It now only allows essential travel between the two countries, including for international students

As headlines swirled about the border closures, Tak, a fourth-year University of British Columbia (UBC) history major, had to decide whether to go back home to California or stay in B.C. By going home, she’d have to leave and pay rent just to keep her belongings in her apartment if she couldn’t return. 

“There was still like that period of anxiety for that week, where a lot of international students didn’t know what to do,” Tak told HuffPost Canada.

Courtesy of Sheryl Tak
Sheryl Tak is an international student who decided to stay in British Columbia, but is worried for her mom in the U.S.

She ultimately decided to stay, but that means being away from her mom, a health-care worker who lives alone. Tak worries about who would take care of her mom if she got sick, especially since she’s 65 and experts say older people are more at risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

Tak said she felt she had a better chance of not getting sick by staying in Canada, based on the situation in California (as of April 5, there are over 14,000 positive cases and 343 deaths, according to the government). 

If she were to get sick, she thinks B.C.’s health-care system is better. “If I need to go to a hospital [in California], would there be [an] ICU [bed] that’s open to me?” she said. 

Tak can access health care in British Columbia through the provincial government, although she must pay premiums to the province, but this isn’t the case for all students from abroad. Currently, six provinces or territories have systems that allow international students to buy into the public health-care system. International students in Ontario, for example, must pay for private health-care insurance.

WATCH: It’s still unclear whether most students will qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. Story continues below


Accessing health care is one of the many challenges international students face amid the global pandemic

Colleges and universities across the country have closed and moved classes online to slow the spread of COVID-19. Many post-secondary residences have also closed, though some institutions have made exceptions for international students. 

At UBC, international student tuition ranges from $39,000 to $50,000, depending on the program, compared to around $5,000 to $8,000 for domestic students. International students bring in a lot of money for post-secondary institutions, since their tuition isn’t regulated by most provincial governments. 

But international students say they also lack support for academics, mental health, housing and more. 

‘No clear direction’ for international students

International students were already lacking institutional support before the COVID-19 crisis, Wesam AbdElhamid Mohamed, international students commissioner at the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), told HuffPost. 

“There is no clear direction of health institutions that are protecting international students. And that’s why you see a lot of international students anxious over the current situation,” Mohamed, who is from Egypt and attending Western University for his masters of engineering science, said. 

The CFS is currently advocating for schools to ensure academic accommodations for international students, as well as financial support for those who lose their job or income because of the pandemic. The organization is also asking institutions to help international students with access to housing, and access to public health care. 

There is no clear direction of health institutions that are protecting international students.Wesam AbdElhamid Mohamed

The organization is also asking for post-secondary students, including international students, to be included in the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which allows people economically impacted by the pandemic to claim $2,000 for four months for emergency support. 

International students contributed an estimated $21.6 billion to Canada’s GDP in 2018, according to the federal government

“So that’s why we feel that it’s truly essential to include them in the emergency program,” Mohamed said.

Students confused by travel restrictions

Nilan Saha is a UBC master’s student studying data science. He came from India to get his post-grad degree and is hoping to stay in Canada, or at least North America, after he graduates. His family is in India, where there’s currently a country-wide lockdown.

Saha was set to graduate in June. He said it’s a “bad year” to be graduating, and wonders whether companies will be hiring.

He’s not planning to go home to visit family, because he only has health insurance in B.C. and doesn’t want to go to the airport and risk contracting the disease while travelling. But he says he has friends who badly want to go home and are worried they won’t be able to come back to Canada.

Courtesy Nilan Saha
Nilan Saha is graduating from UBC in June, and worries about what the job market will look like amid the pandemic.

He said the rules around visa regulations aren’t always clear, especially right now. 

“I think a lot of international students are worried that if they go back home, just to stay with their family during this crisis, [they] aren’t going to be able to come back.”

If international students held a valid study permit, or had been approved for one, on or before March 18 — when the travel restrictions were put into place — they are exempt from the restrictions and can travel to Canada by air or land, according to UBC’s website.

‘Distressing’ situation for homestay students

Katie, who asked not to use her full name to protect the identities of the students she hosts, started hosting international students when she was diagnosed with a serious health problem. She was a single parent with children who have special needs and lost her income when she needed to have an oncology surgery. She’d always planned to host international students after going on exchange herself as a teenager, but decided to do it sooner to make up gaps in her income.

She says the homestay and hosting industry will be “hugely impacted” by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smith had two teenage students staying with her this semester. One chose to go home under “great distress.” Smith says booking flights was difficult since so many were cancelled and the remaining ones were expensive. When the student got home, she had to live in a quarantine centre for two weeks, before flying to her home city where she’d have to go into self-isolation for another two weeks. 

“For many of our students, I think it’s really just distressing,” Smith told HuffPost. “They were really enjoying their time in Canada and really feeling like they had built a life here. They had friends, they had their school communities.”

For many of our students, I think it’s really just distressing.Katie, international student host

Smith said the student who left was volunteering weekly, and felt so at home that she didn’t want to leave. She would have had three months left in Canada. The other student who is staying was supposed to be here for a semester, but Smith has told her she can stay longer if her country shuts its border down.

Smith said she feels she’s had to become “more of a parent” during this time, which she’s happy to do. She was helping her students find news from their home countries and understand what the quarantine might be like.

There are “huge” financial implications for her as well. 

Typically she’d get a month’s notice if a student were to leave early, but this has now been waived — “rightly so,” Smith said. This means she’s losing a significant part of her income, especially given that June and July are typically her busiest months. 

Smith said the student who is staying has been missing social contact; because of time differences, she’s been staying up to talk to her friends at home. She makes time to go on walks together, take the dog for a walk, play cards or watch a comedy together. The students’ teachers have also checked in and given ideas for activities.

“[I’m] just hoping that the days are as easy as they can be for them because they’re young and they’re vulnerable,” Smith said. “This is the last thing they or their parents expected when they chose to come to Canada for three months.”

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Katie was diagnosed with cancer. In fact, early oncology treatments helped her avoid a cancer diagnosis.