Housing uncertainty adds to COVID-19 pandemic stress for international students in Manitoba

By | April 15, 2020

Housing uncertainty is heightening anxiety brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic for some international students in Winnipeg, as a deadline to leave residence looms and the number of international flights dwindles.

Hundreds of international students currently living in residence at the University of Manitoba have been given until April 30 to leave their dorms or seek a residence extension with the school.

The U of M is accepting short- and long-term extension requests from students who face “significant challenges in returning home,” said spokesperson Sean Moore in an email. The school has 573 international students currently living in residence, out of 600 students in total.

Those who don’t get extensions are left with limited options for how to find housing, land work or get home, as the global pandemic impacts everything from international flights to the local job market.

“It’s a very tricky situation,” said Victoria Nwabuisi, the international student representative for the University of Manitoba Students’ Union.

Many international students in residence have never rented off-campus housing in Canada, she said, and aren’t familiar with the Winnipeg market or their rights as tenants.

“How do you go see houses?” she said. “How do you want to get around? That’s exposure.”

Nwabuisi said she’s heard from some students that landlords posting listings online aren’t always offering video tours of their properties.

For most students, there were “no prior arrangements to stay in residence over the summer, because the original plan was to go back to their home countries in the summer. But now, flights back to several countries abroad are being cancelled,” she said.

“Most of them have no job…. After April 30, [they] will be stranded in Winnipeg, and with no accommodation.”

Housing far from the only challenge

The University of Manitoba is directing students who need help finding a home to its off-campus housing website, Places4Students.com.

The impacts of the global pandemic are reverberating through the lives of many students. Even as they scramble to solve housing issues, they’re also working to prepare for exams and finish their semesters online, Nwabuisi said.

Students who’d planned to finish coursework this summer are facing uncertainty about whether that will be possible, she said. That, in turn, has implications for students who’d planned to graduate after the summer and now need to figure out if they can extend their student visas.

For students who already returned to their home countries, the pandemic has created fears about how to continue their studies abroad — and when they’ll be able to come back to Canada.

“The anxiety that several people currently have [is], ‘What if I get COVID? Who will take care of me? What will my health care coverage look like?” Nwabuisi said.

“It’s not just international students, it’s everyone else, as well. But for the international community, most students are far away from their main support system, so it’s just harder.”

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Financial concerns and worry for their families at home compound the stressors already facing students, said Reza Shaker, vice-president of the University of Winnipeg International Students’ Association.

Some international students may qualify for the Canada emergency response benefit, or CERB, but only if they made at least $5,000 in Canada in the 12 months prior to applying.

Shaker said some students who relied on financial help from their family at home won’t meet that criteria — but they may no longer have as much help from home, either, due to the global economic impacts of the pandemic.

“They’re concerned about the health issues. Also concerned about their studies. They’re concerned about their family. They’re concerned about their finances,” Shaker said.

“Taking all these things into consideration, these students — most of them being very young — are facing a real problem and they’re going through a mental hardship, I believe.”

‘Keep praying, stay focused’

Students at both schools are working independently and with administration to find ways to help support international students.

Alexander Ilesanmi, director of international students with the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association, said his group has already set up a website to help students who can’t access their normal, in-person tutoring get help online. They’re also working on finding a way to get groceries delivered to students who request it through a food bank.

Ilesanmi, who is a support worker on campus, said he’s already reached out to other international students to offer support and make sure they know where to find help.

“Keep praying, stay focused,” he said.

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When the campus shut down in March, students living in the U of W’s residence were asked if they planned to leave, spokesperson Kevin Rosen said in an email.

“While we have been encouraging students to leave residence early if they are able to do so, we understand that barriers may prevent some students from leaving — and we have been accommodating those in need,” he wrote.

“Students requiring accommodations into the summer term are all being accommodated.… International students can remain in their rooms and are being offered immigration support through our International, Immigrant, and Refugee Student Services Centre.”

At the U of M, Nwabuisi is one of the students helping organize initiatives to support international students through the pandemic, including creating a digital copy of Manitoba tenants’ rights for students to keep on their phone and seeking funding to help students pay rent in the coming months.

She said she’s been impressed by the University of Manitoba’s response to the pandemic overall, including its continued efforts to reach out to students and take feedback.

“I have never seen the university be as engaged and as flexible as they’ve been in the last few months,” she said.

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