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How community food donations are keeping international students afloat

Community groups are helping Brazilian and Colombian students with food donation. Source: Manoel Felipe

International students are among those hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic in Australia. With many losing work or having their hours cut, and little government support, food donations by community groups are helping them get by.

Douglas Froes da Silva arrived in Melbourne from Alagoas, Brazil, in February this year.

As one of more than 700,000 international students enrolled in Australia, he was excited about the prospects of studying in a new country.

“I had all these plans... to go to school, meet people, work.”

Instead, Mr da Silva found himself in the middle of a pandemic lockdown in an unknown country. Queuing up for food every Friday outside a Brazilian restaurant in Melbourne CBD is now a routine for him.

“I go there every Friday. Getting the food hampers helps to pay the rent as I save on grocery shopping. I haven't missed a day of collection, except just once when I had a job,“ he told SBS Portuguese.

He now works as an Uber Eats delivery driver and says despite the setbacks, he is optimistic about the future. 

“Things will get better. All my friends went back to Brazil, but I stayed. I couldn’t go back and give up on my dreams. We will beat this virus.”

Brazilian students
“We need shelter, a roof over our heads. Saving on food helps me to pay other bills, especially rent. These Brazilians are really helping us,” says student Karla Dayane
Priscila Souza

Like Mr da Silva, 30-year-old Karla Dayane Gomes came to Melbourne to study, meet new people and work.

But soon after her arrival, the casual cleaning jobs she managed to find were all gone. She says her landlord asked her to vacate the apartment she was renting despite the government banning evictions. But the biggest setback, she says was the school closing its doors and moving online. 

She says she worked hard to come to Australia and learn English. With the classes moving online due to the COVID-19 restrictions, she says she is finding it difficult to learn. 

She says she suffered anxiety attacks and put on "a lot of weight due to stress".

She found help from a community group, COVID-19 Brasileiros em Melbourne that distributes food packages to international students. 

“We need shelter, a roof over our heads. Saving on food helps me to pay other bills, especially rent. These Brazilians are really helping us,” she says.

Ms Gomes says she is now slowly getting back on her feet.

“I am selling cakes. Many international students are cooking all sorts of traditional dishes and selling them. I am getting casual cleaning jobs as well and things are looking up,” she says.

She has registered for financial assistance of $1100 announced by the Victorian government.

“If I am eligible and receive the money, I will pay for rent and school that are my two top priorities as I am renewing my visa.”

Ms Gomes says she will not return home until she fulfills her dream of studying and improving her career prospects in Australia.

Brazilian students
International students Beatriz, Karla and Douglas arrived in Australia two months before the lockdown due to the Covid-19 crisis.
supplied

It has been really tough on me to completely lose out on the experience of studying in Australia because of the coronavirus.

For Beatriz Nogueira, a marketing student from São Paulo, Brazil who is currently on an exchange program, Melbourne held an exciting new prospect. But the pandemic has turned her plans upside down. 

“I can’t go out and make friends. I thought I would arrive here, be employed in two weeks, but it didn’t happen,” she says.

“It's been really tough on me to completely lose out on the experience promised by my international exchange program because of the coronavirus.”

With her income cut off and her already limited savings eroding, like Ms Gomes and Mr da Silva, she's relying on food donations to get by. 

“The action taken by these people, of donating food, shows that there’s humanity in the world. It is amazing to see that good people exist. If I didn’t get help, I would probably have returned to Brazil.”

Brazilian students
"Getting the food hampers helps to pay the rent as I save on grocery shopping. I haven't missed a day of collection," says student Douglas da Silva.
Priscila Souza

I saw that other community groups were helping each other and I knew I had to do something.

‘The Kindness Pandemic' Facebook group with more than 570,000 followers, served as inspiration for businesswoman Priscila Souza to create a community group that would help Brazilian and Latino students during the COVID-19 crisis.

The community action was initiated after the federal government announced a $130 billion package to save jobs and the economy but left out international students and temporary visa holders.  

"I saw that other communities were helping each other and I knew I had to do something," says Ms Souza.

She then decided to gather a group of people who together have already collected half a ton of food and warm clothing that they distributed among more than 400 students in Melbourne.

The group is also donating bicycles to these students to enable them to work.

“Many of them are now working in the delivery industry. If they get these bikes they can make money on the side, which may help them in the tough months ahead,”  she says.

"We are having a fantastic response from the community, everybody got together to help. These tough times definitely bring the best in people. We can only be grateful," says Ms Souza.

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