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Edmonton International Airport went nearly silent, as officials made moves to restrict all non-essential travel.  (Maya Abdallah)

Strangers in a newly strange land

Pandemic leaves many international students
feeling alone, abandoned and afraid
By Rahma Dalmar

THE CORONAVIRUS emergency is leaving many international students in the dark and frustrated.

“There is this stereotype that international students have it easy and their parents have money … Throughout this entire process, I feel like nobody’s thinking about us.”

The speaker is Sarah (who asked to remain anonymous), a first-year University of Alberta Student. She made a quick decision to return home to the United Arab Emirates Tuesday – stretching her already shoestring budget.

There are a lot of International students in Edmonton. MacEwan University has more than 900, from 70 countries; the U of A has more than 7,000 from 164 countries. 

They are adjusting to the pandemic “one day at a time, as information becomes available,” says Ethel Uwawah, a MacEwan student from Nigeria. “The situation constantly confuses me more as an International student.”

To further compound her situation, Uwawah was studying in the Netherlands when the pandemic struck.


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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday that $82 billion in support would be allocated to Canadians and businesses.

“The measures we’re announcing today will provide up to $27 billion in direct support to Canadian workers and businesses”  while the other $55 billion will be spent “through tax deferrals to help stabilize the economy,” Trudeau said during one of the daily press meetings from his home – where he is self-isolating.

However, this support doesn’t cover residents with student visas.

“I have been reading all the news for these past few days and there is no mention of helping us,” Uwawah says. She has been in Edmonton for the past 10 years and says she has come to consider Edmonton home.

As she hunkers in her dorm in the Netherlands, she says she has many unanswered questions about where she will go in the next few months.  

“I can’t come back to Canada because the borders are closed to me. However, I can stay in the Netherlands until October; that’s how much my Dutch permit lasts for. I’m grateful for that. I don’t have to think about where I’m going to have to live right away.”


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Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has been the main source that universities are using when providing international students with information, and what it has been saying is not encouraging.

Yet these people are a major source of income for post-secondary institutions in this country. The Government of Canada reported that, in 2015 and 2016, international students and their families spent “$12.8 billion and $15.5 billion on tuition, accommodation and discretionary spending.”

This equates to “118,640 (2015) and 143,100 (2016) full-time jobs.”


Screen Shot 2020-03-19 at 6.16.33 PM(Government of Canada table detailing international students financial contributions)


Uwawah says she’s also worried for her sister, who graduated from MacEwan and works in Edmonton, because she doesn’t know what will happen to her sister’s income.

While the country and the province are addressing the needs of Canadians first, Uwawah says, she “feels isolated.”

 Ada Nieminen, has been attending MacEwan and living and working in Canada for the past four years and has made the tough decision to stay and not go home to Finland. 

The Government of Canada’s provisions allows International students to work 20 hours per week during the school year and full-time during regular breaks. 

However, not having work being laid off, she has no financial assistance.

 MacEwan’s strategy to “continue to work to follow the recommendations of the Public Health Agency of Canada and in consultation with Alberta Health Services and the Alberta government,” has meant the implementation of new measures to assist, Erin Wight, Interim Director at MacEwan International says.

“Our priorities have focused on assisting exchange students with the implementation of the university’s recall of students abroad and providing guidance on travel, academic, financial and other risk factors.”

Han Wu, a MacEwan student from Hangzhou, China, is in her last semester, and is not shy about admitting her fear of the disease.

“I don’t think people are taking this disease seriously,” she says. “We all need to do our part”.  

Her family was under house isolation for a few weeks as the virus spread in China,  she says.

They “were only allowed to leave their homes for food, and a few people got to go each day. It was bad for business and people lost a lot of money, but it helped deal with the spread.”

Wu says her cousin, who attends secondary school in Virginia, found that the “pandemic was not being taken seriously” which ultimately prompted him to go home. 

“It was shocking to hear that people had to pay to get tested for the virus in America,” she says. “It can affect everyone.”

For Wu and her family in Hangzhou, finances weren’t the biggest issue, but the spread of the disease and how responsible people and their governments were being.

The fear for most of these international students is for their elder parents and family members, at home.

Through the transition to teaching remotely, rather than in class, MacEwan and U of A have been passing on information as the provincial and federal governments make decisions and recommendations.

“I feel bad for the professors,” Sarah says. “We are all put in the same situation.”

Students who require assistance can “access advising support services via web-conferencing platforms,” Wright says. “Any international student in self-isolation can connect with MacEwan International, and a staff member will connect with them daily to check in on their overall well-being.”

Yet, international departments across both campuses have left many students frustrated. This, says Sarah, has led her to go home and try to finish the semester online. Her finals begin at “1:30 a.m. local time in the UAE.”

Meanwhile, Uwawah says she is still trying to figure out whether she will be allowed to come back to Canada, and if her sister will have a job, if the situation gets worse.

As the winter semester comes to an end the “university is reviewing options for international students who have been accepted to the university for May, but may face barriers due to visa delays and/or borders remaining closed,” Wright says.

“As the university deals with the “global uncertainty around travel and borders,” Wright adds. “The international office will continue to asses visas and other necessary services and how they will impact international students in the fall.”

  • As of March 20, The Government of Canada revised the travel restrictions that were announced on March 18. International students who hold a valid study permit or have been approved for a study permit before the travel restrictions were announced are allowed to enter the country. All those returning from travel, as always, are to self-isolate for a 14-day period.

MacEwan’s Allard Hall, after the university announced classes were moving online, was nearly deserted on March 16.  (Maya Abdallah)

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