International students in Australia prepare to spend the holidays away from family

It’s been a rough year surviving the pandemic away from home.

By Yan Zhuang

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Yan Zhuang, a reporter with the Australia bureau.

Around this time in a normal year, Decheng Sun would be preparing to fly to China to see his parents after wrapping up another semester at the University of Sydney. He would celebrate the Lunar New Year there, cooking up a huge festive meal with his family and watching fireworks with his relatives before returning to Australia to continue his studies.

That won’t be possible this year.

While most in Australia are looking forward to spending the holiday with loved ones as coronavirus restrictions ease (and fervently hoping that a recent outbreak in Sydney won’t scuttle those plans), strict border restrictions that prioritize letting citizens and permanent residents into the country mean that international students like Mr. Sun won’t be able to come back for some time if they leave the country.

The second-best option for Mr. Sun would be to spend Lunar New Year in Australia with friends. But most of the friends he would celebrate with have been stuck in China since the beginning of the year because of the border closures, with no clear indication from the government when they’ll be able to return to university here.

So for Mr. Sun, 25, the biggest holiday of the year might end up looking like a very ordinary day. “Maybe I’ll have a quiet night with my dog,” he said.

He acknowledged that “it sounds like a very sad thing,” but he’s not too emotional about it. It’s a small issue in the context of the rough year that he and other international students in Australia have had.

When the coronavirus first hit the country, the federal government refused to extend wage subsidies to international students. Many lost their jobs as employers prioritized giving work to locals in order to receive government support. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the students to “make your way home” if they couldn’t support themselves.

Half a world away from family and support networks, the students speak of loneliness, racism and hustling to find work and save money over the summer in case another wave of the coronavirus hits and they’re left out in the cold again.

The experience has been particularly dispiriting for a cohort already under no pretenses about what they’re valued for.

“We were always seen as cash cows,” said Param Mahal, a computer science student from India. “But when a disaster strikes, you’d hope there would be some compassion from the government about the situation we’re in. But in this case, there wasn’t. There was compassion for everyone apart from international students and temporary residents.”

Add a cut in skilled migration, which would make it harder for international students to obtain permanent residency in Australia, along with a rise in xenophobia because of the coronavirus, and it all cumulates in what Mr. Sun describes as a feeling of increasing “hostility” toward international students from some quarters.

But he still maintains that the majority of Australians are welcoming. While the Chinese government has advised prospective students to avoid Australia because of racism, Mr. Sun is encouraging his relatives to come here to study, pointing to local community leaders, certain politicians and charities that rallied to support international students.

Kalyana Vania, a 21-year-old student at the University of Melbourne, spoke matter-of-factly about how her mental health deteriorated to the breaking point during Melbourne’s strict lockdown.

“At one point, it really got to me,” she recalled. “I was thinking: ‘Why am I here? Wouldn’t it be better if I just disappeared? At least then my parents wouldn’t need to pay to support me.’” But the silver lining, she said, was that the incident finally pushed her to see a professional and address underlying mental health problems.

For the students, a resilience born from spending years navigating an unfamiliar country with minimal support has morphed into an unhesitating willingness to step up and take care of one another other when government support is lacking. When their peers could not afford food, international student groups sourced and distributed free food packs. When they believed that their voices weren’t being heard, they became student representatives and got involved in political parties.

The holiday season is no different.

Archit Agrawal, 21, unable to fly back to India to spend time with his family, is helping organizing Christmas dinners for students in similar situations. Everyone will bring a dish from his or her own culture, and they’ll sing carols together.

“We’ve become a second family this year,” he said. “We spent most of this year together; we shared all our problems. It feels right to spend Christmas with each other.”

This will be our last newsletter for 2020. Have a wonderful holiday season — and thank you for inspiring us, challenging us and reading and supporting our work throughout an extraordinary year.

Now for this week’s stories:

Australia and New Zealand

‘Nightmare’ Australia Housing Lockdown Called Breach of Human Rights. An ombudsman’s report condemned a rushed lockdown of nine public housing towers in Melbourne that left thousands of residents without adequate food and medication and access to fresh air.

Australian Open Is Postponed Because of the Coronavirus Pandemic. With infections surging in other parts of the world, the first Grand Slam tennis event of 2021 has been delayed by three weeks, according to a schedule released by the men’s tour.

Red Sox. White Sox. Blue Sox? Manny Is Still Manny. The Sydney Blue Sox were stunned that Manny Ramirez, 48, wanted to join the Australian Baseball League. They’re counting on the former superstar to raise baseball’s profile in the country.

China Battles the World’s Biggest Coal Exporter, and Coal Is Losing. China has officially blocked coal imports from Australia after months of vague restrictions. For Australia, the world’s largest coal exporter, the decision is a gut punch.

‘Free Papua Movement’ Intensifies Amid Escalating Violence. West Papua was annexed by Indonesia decades ago, leading to a prolonged conflict. A tribal chief who lives overseas recently declared himself president of the embattled territory.

Australia Scraps Covid-19 Vaccine That Produced H.I.V. False Positives. Of the dozens of coronavirus vaccines being tested worldwide, the one under development at the University of Queensland was the first to be abandoned.

Around the Times

Waste, Negligence and Cronyism: Inside Britain’s Pandemic Spending. In the desperate scramble for protective gear and other equipment, politically connected companies reaped billions.

She Stalked Her Daughter’s Killers Across Mexico, One by One. Armed with a handgun, a fake ID card and disguises, Miriam Rodríguez was a one-woman detective squad, defying a system where criminal impunity often prevails.

An Opinion Writer Argued Jill Biden Should Drop the ‘Dr.’ (Few Were Swayed.) Many women said Joseph Epstein’s suggestion in The Wall Street Journal was blatantly sexist and underscored the way men often dismiss women’s credentials.

19 Recipes Our Food Staff Cooked on Repeat in 2020. Spotify has its end-of-year lists, and NYT Cooking has one, too: Reporters and editors shared their go-to recipes.

… And We Recommend

The National Gallery of Victoria and our bureau have worked together frequently over the past few years, and we are partnering again for a series of discussions about art, technology, the environment — and whole bunch of other big topics.

Damien Cave, The Times’s Australia bureau chief, will be hosting three talks at the museum: one at 11 a.m. on Saturday, about rivers and the politics of water and farming; another at 12:30 p.m. about the frontiers of art, technology and nature; and a third on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. about what design can do for our struggling oceans.

It’s all part of the NGV’s blockbuster Triennial, which, as their curators put it, “brings contemporary art, design and architecture into dialogue, offering a visually arresting and thought-provoking view of the world at this time.”

The show runs from this weekend through April. Book tickets (they’re free) to make sure you don’t miss it. A list of all events, streamed and in person, can be found on the NGV’s website.

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