TRAPPED in Australia and no way to support themselves, no way to fly back home, no way to get support from family at home, no support from the government and no end in sight – local Catholics have stepped in to meet the need for international students.
Latin American Catholic Community chaplain Fr Ignacio Rodriguez had about 210 students reach out for help.
“Most of them had lost their jobs, many of them were working in restaurants and were not able to work,” he said.
He said most were under a lot of stress and financial pressure, emotional pressure, psychological pressure and also spiritual pressure.
The students’ families could not support their children in many cases because they had lost work due to lockdowns in their countries of origin like Peru, Columbia and Chile.
That’s where the Latin American Catholic Community stepped in.
He said the community had donated 130 food vouchers, ranging between $30 and $50, to students who had lost jobs or were in financial difficulty.
The community had also handed out 100 hampers filled to the brim with goods and found safe places to stay for six students who lacked adequate housing.
Fr Rodriguez said some beautiful stories had emerged from the experience.
“One international student, she said, ‘Father, I would like to contribute a little bit supporting the international students’, even though she’s an international student herself,” Fr Rodriguez said.
“So it was her birthday and she told her friends, ‘I don’t need gifts, whatever you want to give me, give me items so I can make a basket and give it to those who need it’.
“And she collected 10 baskets of items, and she brought it to the office at the church in New Farm.
“I asked her, ‘How did you get all these things,’ and she said, ‘They were gifts that I received from my friends’.
“So cases like these are so, so beautiful.”
In better times, sixth year University of Queensland law and arts student Callum Woods had volunteered with the Missionaries of Charity Sisters’ soup kitchen in Fortitude Valley and taught catechism with them at the local state school, but they had been forced to stop their services and he was looking for a way to give.
Friends of his had lost their jobs at restaurants or in retail because of the lockdown.
Many of them were eligible for government support but many were not, particularly international students.
Members of the Latin American pastoral care team had been in touch and explained how many students were unable to work, either because of job loss, VISA requirements or COVID-19 restrictions.
So Mr Woods approached the UQ Newman Society with the idea of handing out hampers for students, and $1300 was quickly raised to buy the goods mostly from student donations.
The hampers were filled with items like rice, pasta, vegetables and pastes to help give enough food for a student for one week.
Mr Woods said the hampers would be distributed firstly to those who had approached them for help but then when more requests came, they would deliver them as needed.
He said good works like these were at the heart of Catholic chaplaincy.
As material needs were slowly met, it was becoming more about human needs.
Fr Rodriguez said the “family” of the Latin American community had gotten behind these other needs too.
“We asked families (in the Latin American community) if they are willing to adopt this student – to be in touch with them, to support them emotionally, to let them know they are not alone, they are part of the family and provide food vouchers and even if there (were) medical issues, to help them as much as they could with medicine,” Fr Rodriguez said.
He said there was more hope now and as virus cases decrease, he hoped prospects might start looking up for the students.
For Mr Woods, university life might not return to normal for quite some time.
He said there was a slight “claustrophobic” feeling to the daily routine of working from home over a laptop, then seeing friends over a laptop and then doing university work over a laptop.
It was difficult to motivate yourself, he said.
“I think a lot of people have been struggling in a mental kind of way with the idea of spending the whole rest of the year at home,” he said.
“Half of the (reason for) uni is doing the work with people and meeting people at uni and making face to face connections.
“There’s definitely a distinct difference between catching up with people online and the real thing.”
Living, working and studying from home was made worse when you weren’t at home but in a foreign country, too.
“My girlfriend’s from New Zealand and she’s got friends here, but her family’s at home and a lot of her friends are back in New Zealand,” Mr Woods said.
“I know with the chaplaincy, a lot of people who are really involved also from overseas and I know a lot of their families are back overseas and, yeah, they just don’t necessarily have the same support networks here.
“And even people whose family are here, support networks … haven’t necessarily been able to actually meet up with them.”
For now, international students still hung in the balance and with most airlines shut or operating with limited capacity, the issue was not flying anywhere soon.