International students deal with gaps left by CERB, CESB

With many of Canada’s businesses and classrooms left empty amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students are trying to find ways to fund not only their education, but their day-to-day lives. Facing varying circumstances in Vancouver and at home, international students may find themselves at a disadvantage.

Currently, a patchwork of benefits looks to meet students’ current needs.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) provides up to $2,000 per month for workers whose hours were involuntarily reduced or cut, with the caveat that workers had earned $5,000 or more in 2019 or the past 12 months. The Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), which is slated to roll out in May, looks to fill the gap for domestic post-secondary students and recent grads by providing up to $1,250 per month for those who did not qualify for the CERB.

In addition, the BC government has allocated a $3.5 million fund for domestic students needing emergency financial assistance.

International students remain excluded from the CESB and provincial emergency funding, and while they can qualify for the CERB, the $5,000 minimum has left those who only worked part-time during the winter session in a tough position.

Facing the unforeseen costs

For some international students who planned on staying in Canada this summer, the lack of work opportunities and support from the government have hampered efforts in making Canada their new home.

Rising second-year arts student José Reyeros opted to stay in Vancouver, hoping to take up a full-time job and a few classes over the summer. However, after his position with UBC Food Services was cut in mid-March and circumstances at home led financial support to grow thin, Reyeros scrambled to find other ways to make ends meet.

Although the federal government has temporarily lifted the 20-hour-per-week limit for international students working essential service jobs, that remains contingent on students having one.

“It’s very complicated to find something that also allows [for] social distancing,” said Reyeros. “But it’s not something I can afford to consider.”

While Reyeros continues to look for employment, he is residing with a friend who offered a rent-free stay in their apartment. In addition, an Enrolment Services Advisor was able to find short-term relief for Reyeros through the President’s Emergency Student Fund to cover groceries and other day-to-day living expenses.

For rising third-year arts student Divij Kalia, a lockdown in his home country of India meant that he was stuck in Canada for the foreseeable future.

While Kalia had stayed in Vancouver for half of last summer — he took classes while continuing his part-time job — he was looking forward to returning to New Delhi on May 1. However, ongoing restrictions have left him as one of an estimated 200,000 Indian nationals studying in Canada who may find themselves stuck due to the lockdown at home.

“I’ve not been very productive staying in Vancouver,” said Kalia. “I was in the process of getting an internship in India, but that got cancelled.”

Kalia is currently living in a room he had planned to sublet while using his savings to pay rent, as conditions have made it difficult for his family to send money from India. He looks to return to India once restrictions have eased, and is considering whether he would return to Canada right away if classes were to shift online in the fall.

“Some of my friends considered dropping the [first semester] of winter session if classes go online,” said Kalia. “There’s no point in me coming back because I can get the same education [at home] with my parents and I’ll be saving on huge travelling costs.”

Both Reyeros and Kalia mentioned that a lowering of the CERB minimum and better communication from the university regarding resources available to international students in the short-term and the possibility of online instruction going forward would be beneficial to their situations.

In a statement to The Ubyssey, AMS President Cole Evans said that the society is working towards addressing the gaps in the government response to COVID-19 and advocating for policies that benefit UBC students.

“We’ve been in close discussion with the University around future planning for COVID-19, and we’ve continued to emphasize the importance of clear and accessible communication to students during these times,” said Evans. “We’re also highlighting the importance of student engagement so that students are able to share what their priorities are as we continue to navigate these difficult times.”

Former AMS VP External Cristina Ilnitchi mentioned the possibility of post-secondary institutions receiving emergency funding for international students from the province, but no updates have come up.

“We continue to have productive discussions with our government partners and will continue to work to identify and advocate for how the province can provide much-needed aid to international students,” said Evans.

Looking to the long-term

In the meantime international students, like their domestic counterparts, have sought policies such as reduced or waived incidental fees for the summer term and more communication regarding the status of the winter term.

But for international students especially, the open dialogue of situations that have arisen as a result of the pandemic can provide individuals with not only short-term relief, but an idea of how their careers and lives in Canada may play out.

“Receiving money shouldn’t be the only thing,” said Reyeros. “People who go to university [here] are those that want to make a change, to create solutions. It would be better to make them feel included rather than left out because of the impact that they can create here.”