When COVID aid programs were rolled out, Australia’s international students were overlooked. As they struggled to put food on the table it was up to charities to support them – some who were going days without food. And the demand is not over.
“I’ve never lost a job in my life so it was hard, I took it very personally, I was like, ‘oh my God there must be something wrong with me’ but no it’s not me, it was the pandemic.”
International student, Elizabeth Thanelice, had been working at the University of New South Wales when the coronavirus pandemic hit. As well as studying full time she had been working on campus, running inductions for students and teaching them graphic design software.
Pre-COVID, rent, and food had not been an issue for Thanelice, who arrived in Sydney from India in February 2019.
But the pandemic changed everything. Once students began working from home they no longer needed to be taught how to use the specific university computer software.
For Thanelice, who is studying a master’s degree in design, this meant she was now without an income and far from her family back home.
“It was hard for a lot of international students because aid like JobKeeper, I was not eligible for that, so again when you have a regular income coming in and it just suddenly stops, it’s hard.”
Thanelice and her three housemates tried to gain a rental reduction from their landlord but were unsuccessful. As a result, they were forced to find cheaper accommodation, and pay the cost of breaking their lease.
After paying rent, there was little money left to buy groceries – sometimes none. So for the first time, Thanelice had to turn to her parents back home for financial support.
“ … It wasn’t a problem until the pandemic hit home and then the banks shut down so there was a period for almost one to two months where we couldn’t really access the bank, so even if you have money in the bank you can’t take your own money so it was really bad.”
It was at this point that Thanelice was put in touch with a financial aid program through the university and was also given access to free groceries via Foodbank who began deploying groceries on campus.
Without this support Thanelice said she would have had to quit her studies and try and find a way to return home.
The new group in Australia facing food insecurity
A recent report released by Foodbank found that three in 10 (28 per cent) of those experiencing food insecurity in Australia had never faced it before the pandemic.
Charities across Australia reported seeing significant numbers of two new groups facing food insecurity – casual employees and international students. A higher proportion of the people experiencing food insecurity for the first time during COVID-19 are also women (60 percent).
“The situation was dire, put simply, we were facing many states and territories and many situations where international students were presenting to Foodbank after going days without eating,” Foodbank Australia CEO, Brianna Casey, told Insight.
“They had lost their casual employment, the universities were not accessible to them, they’re stranded here in this country, their families back home could no longer send funds to assist them and unfortunately they simply didn’t know where to go for help.”
Without assistance from the Government, charities like Foodbank, and others, were forced to quickly organise food relief for these students.
“It is unfortunate that the assistance measures that have been made available to other vulnerable cohorts of the community have not been extended to these international students, they really have fallen through the cracks,” Casey said.
Monthly surveys conducted by Foodbank also revealed that charities believe they will need an average of 41 per cent more food to cope with the anticipated increase in demand as Government assistance is further wound back. This is an extra 2.7 million meals a month that need to be found.
Chasey says that everyone can do their bit to help. Whether it be volunteering in person, when appropriate according to state by state COVID safety measures, or donating money or food.
She also wants to see corporate Australia and government lend a helping hand.
“We need to ensure that anyone who is struggling to put a meal on the table, one, knows where to get that help, and two, and can actually receive it.”
As for Thanelice, she is still without a job, and continuing to search for a new one. Fortunately she is now able to access money from back home so she only needs to rely on Foodbank about once a month. Despite the tough year she’s had, she said she’s managed to find the silver lining.
“I started doing my own little garden on the balcony … I think it’s led to a better lifestyle than before, like you wouldn’t care about these things before but now the minute I get up in the morning the first thing is to go and water my plants and make sure they’re OK because they help to feed me.”