Shame is stopping Australia's international students from asking for help

A charity in Tasmania has been providing free meals and groceries to international students during the coronavirus pandemic - but some are still unwilling to accept support.

A young man wearing a mask working in a kitchen

Waikit Yung was forced to live in his car when the pandemic began. Source: SBS News: Sarah Maunder

Earlier this year Waikit Yung found himself living in his car. 

The 31-year-old moved to Australia from Hong Kong six years ago and had been in Tasmania studying commercial cookery at TasTAFE. 

But after graduating he struggled to find a job, which became even more difficult when coronavirus hit. 

“When the pandemic happened I was living in a house, but after that I moved into my car because I didn’t have any more money,” he told SBS News. 

His wife and daughter live in China, but due to the travel restrictions he hasn’t been able to see them for almost a year. 

Waikit Yung graduated from a commercial cookery course last year, and is now using those skills to volunteer.
Source: SBS News: Sarah Maunder

“[The long-distance relationship] is a traditional Chinese story, but it is hard,” he said. 

“They are safe in China ... I’m just trying to figure out how I can support myself in Australia.”

Waikit is currently on a bridging visa. He has applied for the 485 graduate visa and hopes to bring his wife and daughter to be with him, but is still waiting for his application to be approved. He doesn’t qualify for JobSeeker support. 

The Wellspring Anglican Church in Sandy Bay, one of Hobart’s inner suburbs, soon came to his rescue. 

When the pandemic began, the church established the Show Hope charity which provides hot meals, groceries and other essentials to international students doing it tough.

The church was able to find Waikit some accommodation, and in return, he volunteers his time helping to prepare the meals Show Hope provides to about 700 international students each week.  

Waikit hopes that by speaking about his experience, it will encourage others who might be struggling to seek out support. 

“I hope I have the ability to help [other people] the same as me when I was going through the hardship,” he said.

'Ashamed to ask for help' 

Sam Gough is the university pastor at Wellspring Anglican Church. He said it has been difficult to get some of the students to accept help because they feel ashamed or guilty. 

“Some of the students have been very reluctant to come forward and receive help,” he said. 

“Some have apologised to me because they have received food. I’ll offer food to them and they refuse it even though I know they’ve got no money and they desperately need it.”

Pastor Sam Gough worries about the students that are not accepting help.
Source: SBS News: Sarah Maunder

Julie Groom is the Migration and Emergency Services Lead for the Red Cross in Tasmania. 

She said the Red Cross has regularly seen people who are from a migrant background, or who are on a temporary visa, who are ashamed, embarrassed or scared to ask for help or financial support.

"I think it's a common trend across all of the emergency relief providers," she said. 

"We're finding people are embarrassed to come forward ... If you think about an international student in a sharehouse, we're finding people won't come forward because they're embarrassed that their housemates will find out.

"Men, in particular, are reticent to come forward, fathers ... the primary income earners of the family, and this could be the first time in a long time that they've lost their incomes."

Julie Groom works for the Red Cross in Tasmania.
Source: SBS News: Sarah Maunder

Ms Groom said it is also important to make it clear that if a temporary visa holder does accept help, it won't affect their visa status.

"Part of their visa conditions is that they are self-sufficient and self-funding, so they have never had to ask for help before and people are worried about coming forward in terms of whether this impacts their visa status post-COVID." 

Shushmita Roy moved to Tasmania from Bangladesh to study IT at UTAS in 2018. 

The 21-year-old has been volunteering at Show Hope for the past two months while also accepting hot meals and groceries.

During that time, she’s also been trying to convince one of her good friends to come along, but she said he’s been reluctant. 

Shushmita Roy says one of her friends is too embarrassed to be seen collecting food from a charity.
Source: SBS News: Sarah Maunder

“He knows about Show Hope, I have told him several times, even some of our mutual friends have told him, and he really needs help, but he is too embarrassed to show up,” she said. 

“He didn’t lose his job, but his shifts were cut back so he is facing a financial crisis.”  

Shushmita has been completing her final year of study during the pandemic. 

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Her mother, father and siblings live in Bangladesh. Her parents were helping her financially but COVID-19 has made things difficult. 

“The banks are also closed in my country because the situation is so bad. The cases are increasing every day so it’s difficult for my dad to send me money,” she said.

“I am worried for them because the situation in Bangladesh is not the best ... There are people who have COVID-19, but they don’t know it." 

What other help is available to students?

University of Tasmania executive director of student experience Steph Taylor said the university had been in touch with the Wellspring Anglican Church to provide support. 

She said the university also had a number of its own programs in place.

“We provide a range of programs that support our students – domestic and international – including grants and vouchers for groceries and necessities, laptops and other resources to support their learning, financial assistance grants or flexibility and payment plans for course fees or accommodation."

“Since COVID-19 impacted our community, the university has provided support to the value of more than $2.5 million."

TasTAFE CEO Jenny Dodd said every international student studying there has access to the support and advice of an international student advisor.

"Our international student advisors increased contact with international students during COVID-19, maintaining weekly contact via phone or video and assisting them to access support services as needed," she said.

In April, the Tasmanian Government announced it would provide one-off payments of $250 to visa holders experiencing financial hardship

As of June 2020, 3,960 grants had been paid to temporary visa holders, totalling $1,275,525. 

“Temporary visa holders are being supported by the Tasmanian Government through the emergency assistance grants, emergency relief services through partner organisations, assistance to return to their country of citizenship, and employer assistance payments,” a government spokesperson said. 

Anita Lincolne-Lomax says it's often a misconception that international students come from wealthy families.
Source: SBS News: Sarah Maunder

Anita Lincolne-Lomax is a member of the Wellspring Anglican Church. She organised a blanket drive because so many students were asking for blankets when they came to collect their hot meals. 

She said there is often a misconception in Australia that International students come from wealthy families. 

“The majority of the students come from humble families who have sometimes taken on big loans to get their kids here in the hope that their education opportunities will break a poverty cycle,” she said. 

“Often the cleaning or kitchen jobs that these kids had in between their full-time study were not only supporting themselves but also sending money back home to their families. 

“They’ve really fallen through the cracks in the sense they can no longer support themselves, but their families are not in the position to back them.”

Waikit said he is glad he got some help with his situation and is determined to find a job as a chef or a cook in Tasmania, rather than relocating to a big city such as Sydney or Melbourne.

“I am job-hunting every day," he said. 

"I prefer Tassie, it is the lifestyle here. I have my friends here and I hope I can have a house and go to the beach with my wife and daughter.” 

Students who are struggling are encouraged to contact their university or college. 

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyond Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Published 20 August 2020 at 7:24am
By Sarah Maunder